In any season, there are always going to be players that are going to be heavily scrutinized. With the Toronto Maple Leafs, that scrutiny is even more magnified given the fan base and attention from the mainstream media.
Even though there have been bright spots in a player’s career, it’s what’s happened recently that’ll garner the most attention, more notably the struggles and criticism they have faced. For the Maple Leafs, there are quite a few players who have had success in the past but have had their fair share of low points in their career. Here are four players that will be under the microscope for the 2022-23 season.
Matt Murray & Ilya Samsonov
This comes as no surprise, but the two biggest additions in goal are going to be under the microscope constantly. Matt Murray was acquired from the Ottawa Senators just before free agency opened and the Maple Leafs signed Ilya Samsonov to a one-year deal after the Washington Capitals failed to give him a qualifying offer.
Both of these transactions came with heavy criticism towards general manager Kyle Dubas from the fan base and even from mainstream media has been harsh of both Murray and Samsonov. It’s easy to see why based on their recent history as both goaltenders have dealt with their struggles as of late.
After winning back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016-17 and 2017-18, Murray has struggled in his tenure with the Senators. He’s had a hard time to stay healthy as he managed to only play in 47 games in two seasons and numbers aren’t strong as he posted a .899 save percentage and a 3.23 goals against average. His goals saved above average was way below league average as well with a -11.3.
With results like this, it’s easy to see why this acquisition could backfire and everyone questioning whether this will work out. Dubas is taking a big risk in hopes that this reclamation project works out. We should consider that Murray was on a poor Senators team and even with a small sample, he had a .906 SV%. Last season, he had .913 even strength save percentage and his .820 high danger save percentage was better than Jack Campbell’s as his was .790.
Samsonov has had a winning record in his first three seasons, including a strong rookie season where he went 16-6-2 record, a .913 SV% and 2.55 GAA. Despite the wins, his numbers have dropped every season after that. His play hasn’t been what the Capitals had hoped for and he struggled to maintain any form of consistency in net. He came to Toronto to try and bet on himself as his contract does carry good value for him to break out.
Fans have might be wary for the two new goaltenders and they may not seem like an improvement over Campbell, but this tandem might be the combination they’ve had in some time. Campbell also had his fair share of struggles in the second half of last season and let’s not forget the play of Petr Mrazek as he very inconsistent. Both were scrutinized at times, yet Murray and Samsonov haven’t played a game and already everyone is criticizing them.
It’s fair to say that many will be skeptical about how Murray and Samosonov’s play will pan out. There’s the potential for a rebound and with a new goalie coach in Curtis Sanford, things could very well work out. The goalie position is one that is always under the microscope, especially when a player’s history comes into play. Both goalies deserve a fresh start, but no matter what, both players are going to be scrutinized if things don’t go right.
Going into his fourth season with the Maple Leafs, it seems as if some are starting to turn on the captain in regards to his overall play. The criticism was very heavy on social media, especially when Tavares went through a stretch of not scoring in 14 straight games.
When you wear the “C”, fans expect the best out of you. They expect you to be vocal and a factor on and off the ice. While Tavares continues to provide a great leadership presence off the ice, his on-ice play is starting to not sit well with the fan base, given how he’s earning $11 million. Even though he dealt with some injuries in the past, he’s providing a significant impact on the ice.
Tavares’ production remains relatively decent, despite what some in the fanbase are saying. While he finished the shortened 2020-21 season with 19 goals and 50 points, over an 82-game pace, that’s good for 29 goals and 75 points and even though he missed three games total last season, he still finished with 27 goals and 76 points. Not bad production, considering he went through a long goalless drought.
While he can still possibly reach 80 points per season, there’s concerns about his skating and how the speed of the game might be a little much for him at the centre position. There was even talks about making Tavares into a winger. Then there are the injuries, an oblique injury he suffered before the World Hockey Championships in 2019 and that very serious concussion he sustained in Game 1 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
If the captain isn’t performing then there are reasons for criticism. While the contract is the main sticking point, he’s still producing well to be a 70-point player. That is still great value in itself. Even if he’s playing well all eyes are going to be on him as one slump will put everyone in Leafs Nation into a frenzy. Seeing as the Maple Leafs have yet to have any playoff success with this core and Tavares as captain with the money he’s making, he’s facing a lot of heat as a result.
The Maple Leafs have always longed for a hard hitting, two-way defenseman. They got just that when they acquired Muzzin back in 2019.
While he has been consistent for the most part, there were a lot of question marks with his play last season. That attributes to mostly who his defensive partner was in Justin Holl. The pairing itself as whole wasn’t great as there were plenty of defensive miscues and lapses leading to odd man rushes against and sustained pressure in the defensive zone. The fan base grew tired of the pairing and wanted a new partner for Muzzin. At five-on-five that pairing had a Corsi For percentage of 50.06 and a goals for percentage of 41.86.
While the pairing played a hand in Muzzin’s poor play, it was the injuries this season that really took a toll on him. He suffered two concussions, one against the St. Louis Blues and then again against the Montreal Canadiens and his absence was a factor for the Maple Leafs in the second half. Muzzin can do it all, block shots, play hard and take away the shooting and passing lanes. Take him out of the lineup and it’s a huge hole to fill.
A healthy Muzzin was exactly what the team needed down the stretch and even in the playoffs, where he was able to up the intensity and physicality. He looked more confident with his play and wanted to make a difference every shift. He has that will and drive to be successful and win. Put Muzzin with a steadier defensive partner and if he’s healthy, you’ll see the results. However, the key for him will be to stay healthy, otherwise if he isn’t, it’ll be a big question mark.
While Murray, Samsonov, Tavares and Muzzin have had their success in the past, lately there are reasons why fans will be very vocal. From uncertainty in the crease, a hefty contract and injuries, fans are going to be very critical of these players but also for the team in general. Expectations are always high given the disappointment faced in recent years.
With the Maple Leafs looking to find success, we are relying on these players to achieve that. If they don’t, then the critics will be coming out in full force.
Statistics from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.
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Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.