Maple Leafs Face Dilemma Naming No. 1 Netminder

As the 2022-23 season got underway, it was logical to assume that the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending strategy was set to include Matt Murray as their No. 1 and Ilya Samsonov as their No. 2, with an open competition for the net throughout. However, that’s not quite how things have transpired thus far in Toronto.

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Forced to the sidelines following an opening night loss at the hands of last year’s worst team, during which he only stopped 19 of 23 shots faced, there wasn’t much optimism surrounding Murray at that point. Meanwhile, Samsonov accomplished more than enough to illustrate his capabilities, through the increased workload he successfully managed in Murray’s absence.

Then, amid Samsonov gaining meaningful momentum, an injury of his own meant that the net would be open for the taking upon Murray’s return. Offering the two-time Stanley Cup champion an opportunity to flip the main characters within this narrative, accordingly.

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Though Samsonov is not yet cleared to play, when both he and Murray create a fully charged tandem in Toronto it will be on Sheldon Keefe to decide where each rank relative to the other. What may have once seemed like a no-brainer thanks to Samsonov’s rise early on in the campaign, will be anything but as a result of Murray’s recent resurgence.

Murray’s Stat Line Helping Maple Leafs Succeed

Since returning to Toronto’s lineup on Nov. 15, Murray has gone 2-0-1 and posted a 2.33 goals-against average (GAA), .933 save percentage (SV%), and 3.03 goals saved above expected (GSAx) throughout that span. A small sample size, but impressive nonetheless.

Matt Murray Toronto Maple Leafs
Matt Murray, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Having earned five of a possible six points for the Maple Leafs during that three-game stretch, his solid individual numbers support the fact that the 28-year-old’s presence has positively influenced the collective. Making it increasingly clear that Murray is poised for a much-needed turnaround in his career’s storyline, following the failure he faced with the Ottawa Senators through 2020-21 and 2021-22.

Goalies are an easy scapegoat, but what’s been going wrong in Ottawa of late stretches far beyond a struggling starter. Simply stated, despite unflattering results during his time as a Senator, Murray wasn’t to blame for the entire team’s shortcomings.

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His elevation since joining the Maple Leafs actively disputes any theory that suggests otherwise.

“The bench is so fired up when he’s kickin’,” Benn said of Murray’s performance. “He looked so calm, cool and collected in there. It’s good to see, and it gives us confidence to play harder in front of him.”

Not only has the move propelled Murray’s resurgence, but he is also reinforcing the club’s status as a contender. For a roster that has become accustomed to having to pour on the offense to secure a victory, Murray continuing to improve his metrics to levels better than the NHL averages in each regard offers the organization a newfound advantage.

That said, despite the hot stretch that he’s currently on bringing him closer to competing with the league’s best, Murray has some additional work to do if he expects his numbers to shine among Samsonov’s.

Samsonov Had Earned No. 1 Status in Toronto

Recency bias in Murray’s favour shouldn’t negate what Samsonov accomplished after taking full control of their crease. Every additional save seemed to further just how pivotal of a piece Samsonov had already become within the franchise’s game plan.

Ilya Samsonov Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Currently idle on the sideline, Samsonov will return to a sparkling 6-2-0 record, 2.23 GAA, .921 SV%, and 0.643 GSAx/60. The type of numbers necessary for the Maple Leafs to continue their rise through the ranks of the Atlantic Division.

“The guys feel good when he’s in there,” Keefe said of No. 35 Thursday night, his club back where it needs to be. “You feel like he’s going to make the saves. He’s going to be strong.”

The confidence Samsonov displayed by committing to only one year in Toronto this past offseason, in an effort to prove his worth and maximize his next contract, was the perfect foreshadowing for what would follow.

Kicking off his 2022-23 campaign with four straight victories, and managing a progressively increased save count throughout, Samsonov’s presence quickly became impossible to ignore. In fact, that the Maple Leafs currently own a winning record is largely thanks to his individual impact.

Safe to say, the Maple Leafs hope they can count on the 25-year-old accomplishing in the same manner the rest of the way.

Frankly, given the consistent elevation on full display through Samsonov’s performances in Toronto thus far, there’s no reason to doubt that he’s capable of even more. It will simply require additional starts to see such a storyline unfold.

Goalie Battles Benefit Maple Leafs

As was originally outlined before the season began, the plan was always to let the play of Murray and Samsonov dictate who would own the crease on any given night. A paused process that can resume once both are back to being Toronto’s active tandem, with Erik Källgren reassigned to a more suitable role in the American Hockey League (AHL).

Erik Kallgren Toronto Maple Leafs
Erik Kallgren, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Not including Källgren in the conversation shouldn’t undermine what he’s been able to manage since being called upon, though. Thrust into a pressure cooker, with limited North American experience behind him, the 26-year-old deserves credit for helping the Maple Leafs collect points through seven of his nine starts to date.

That said, an active Maple Leafs duo of Samsonov and Murray means Källgren can embrace an opportunity to further his professional experience with the Toronto Marlies. Not quite ready to own a No. 1 or No. 2 role in the NHL, succeeding in the AHL will help him make his case.

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Toronto having one starter achieve among the league’s best is good, but getting to choose between two is even better. If both Murray and Samsonov continue to outperform their competition in the ways they’ve proven capable of to this point in 2022-23, the Maple Leafs could finally have the dominant 1A/1B tandem they’ve been after.

The tradeoff is that, for all the right reasons, it then becomes increasingly difficult for Keefe to name his No. 1 on any given night. Yet, not only is that a great problem for a coach to have, the solution is rather simple.

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Allow the respective goalie adding wins to Toronto’s record to continue doing so until he doesn’t. Anticipating the best out of Samsonov and Murray at all times, as each aims to stand out amid their internal battle, it won’t be a matter of placing blame for any respective loss. Rather, it’s merely a means to force a rotation among what could become the most effective tandem in the league.

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