Maple Leafs’ Goalie Tandem Is Biggest Risk of Kyle Dubas’ Tenure

For the second year in a row, the Toronto Maple Leafs are headed into another season with turnover to some extent between the pipes. Last season, the story was Jack Campbell taking over starting duties as Frederik Andersen signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Now, with Campbell signing a new deal of his own with the Edmonton Oilers, the Maple Leafs are set to begin the 2022-23 season with a tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, two goaltenders who are brand new to the organization. 

Related: Maple Leafs Fans Can Believe in a Matt Murray Bounce Back

To me, this is going to be one of the most interesting storylines to follow throughout the season for a couple of reasons. One of them being the sheer amount of risk that general manager Kyle Dubas is taking here. Murray is looking to turn his career around after two less-than-stellar seasons in a row with the Ottawa Senators, and Samsonov is looking to bet on himself and rebuild his value after the Washington Capitals elected not to offer him a contract, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA). To say that Dubas is taking a risk in committing his crease to two “maybes” is an understatement and one that could very well cost him his job if nothing gives this season.

Matt Murray Ottawa Senators
Matt Murray, Ottawa Senators (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On the flip side, however, Murray and Samsonov both have tremendous upside. Murray is a two-time Stanley Cup winner who has shown the ability to be among the best goaltenders in the league, and Samsonov was the top-ranked goaltender in the 2015 Draft class, selected in the first round by the Capitals. All of a sudden, you have two goalies who are looking to turn their careers around and will be competing against each other for a bigger opportunity. Whether this plan works out for Dubas remains to be seen, so in the meantime, let’s dive into what there is to know and what should be expected from each goaltender. 

Murray Looks to Turn Things Around on His Third Team 

Between the two goaltenders, Dubas definitely took more heat for acquiring Murray. The Maple Leafs pulled off the move two days before free agency opened in 2022, receiving the Thunder Bay native with 25 percent of his salary retained along with a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick in exchange for future considerations. The Maple Leafs didn’t give up any assets in the deal, but considering Murray’s recent struggles and his cap hit, which sits at just north of $4.5 million after salary retention, there’s enough risk built into the trade even without giving up any assets. 

On top of Murray’s salary, there are also legitimate concerns about his durability. He has yet to play more than 50 games in a season at the NHL level, and his last few seasons have seen him hit the injured reserve more than once. Combine that with the death of his father in 2018 and the adjustment to playing for a bottom-feeder team with a microscope on him and his $6.25 million annual salary, and you can see why things have taken such a downward turn for him in recent years. 

However, there’s reason to have hope for a rebound season from Murray. For one, he’s going to be playing behind a much stronger defensive corps compared to what he had in Ottawa. He’s also going to be working with staff he has familiarity with, including former Soo Greyhounds personnel in Dubas and Sheldon Keefe, as well as goaltending development coach Jon Elkin, who Murray has known since he was 10 years old. The Maple Leafs have the resources to surround him with a good situation and give him all the opportunity in the world to succeed. The issue is that if said resources aren’t enough to turn his game around, the Maple Leafs will be stuck paying his salary for two more years. A tricky scenario, indeed. 

Samsonov Betting On Himself After Fallout With Capitals 

If the Maple Leafs had a surefire starting goalie heading into this season, I’d be willing to bet that most fans would be excited about the signing of Samsonov. Despite a rough 2021-22 season, he’s only 25 years old and still has starting goalie potential. But, because the other option is another gamble in Murray, there’s increased apprehension over the premise of having either goalie as a safety net in case the other fails. But, considering the situation Samsonov is in, he might end up having the better chance at turning things around between the two netminders. 

As previously mentioned, Samsonov was drafted 22nd overall by the Capitals in the 2015 NHL Draft. He instantly started putting up impressive numbers in the Kontinential Hockey League (KHL), with his best season coming to the tune of a 2.13 goals-against average (GAA) and a .936 save percentage (SV%) in 2016-17. His rookie NHL season was in 2019-20, where he split the net with Braden Holtby and finished with a record of 16-6-2 with a GAA of 2.55 and a SV% of .913. Solid numbers for a debut, but he regressed in 2020-21 and again in 2021-22, where despite finishing with a record of 23-12-5, managed a GAA of 3.02 and a SV% of .896. 

Regardless of how his season went, it was a tad surprising to see the Capitals turn their backs on Samsonov only three years into his career. To be fair, arbitration could have seen him earn upwards of $3 million, and with the Capitals having next to no cap space, it does make sense that they didn’t feel comfortable paying him that. But either way, he clearly believes he’s worth the money, and he’s proving it by taking a one-year “bet on yourself” type of contract at his age. The contract also carries some under-the-radar value due to the fact that he’ll be an RFA when it expires.

Samsonov will be looking to get paid following the 2022-23 season, whether that’s with the Maple Leafs or elsewhere, and it sets him up for a good chance to turn his game around in Toronto. If he does, the signing will have been a success for the Maple Leafs. If not, they can release him. Unlike Murray, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Samsonov signing hurts the team in the long run.

Internal Competition Will Be Good For Maple Leafs Goaltenders 

As my colleague Shaun Filippelli noted in a recent article of his, the competition in the crease between Murray and Samsonov can only be a good thing for the Maple Leafs this season. Both netminders have something to prove and both will share the common goal of getting the Maple Leafs past the first round of the playoffs, knowing the rewards that could come with that achievement. At the same time, I’d imagine another subpar season for either goaltender could shape the way other teams and general managers view them, which can only mean increased effort between the two.

Kyle Dubas Toronto Maple Leafs Draft
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On top of this, it’s important to remember that the Maple Leafs had some of the league’s worst goaltending throughout the majority of the season. Their team SV% was 21st in the NHL at an even .900, and even that was slightly inflated due to Campbell’s incredible month of November in which he posted a .957 SV%. There’s valid skepticism about the goalies Dubas chose to bring in, but in the end, they really can’t get much worse than they had last season, and even then, the Maple Leafs still managed 115 points as a team. 

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Ultimately, however, Murray and Samsonov could both have Vezina-caliber regular seasons, and none of it will matter if they don’t advance past the first round. You could also apply that to a lot of things with the team this season. We know that having a strong regular season isn’t what the fans want nor what the team should be shooting for, and Dubas’ job hinges on what the Maple Leafs can get out of these goalies this season. Whether you think it was a massive mistake to bring them in or a sneaky good move with great upside, we can all collectively agree that the choice to run with this tandem is risky. But risky doesn’t mean it’s already a failure.

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