Maple Leafs’ Mishandling of Goaltenders During Matthews’ Era

When the Toronto Maple Leafs won the draft lottery in 2016 and selected Auston Matthews with the first-overall pick, the franchise’s future changed. They had Mitch Marner and William Nylander waiting in the wings, and for the first time in a while, there was a lot of hype surrounding the Maple Leafs and their three young guns. Well, it’s been seven years, and even after the team-signed star free agent John Tavares, the club hasn’t lived up to the hype. Yes, they have been a perennial playoff team, but they have fallen short in the first round every season.

Many have argued that it was the core four who didn’t show up or that the defence was too weak. However, even with those valid arguments, the team has failed to allocate time and focus to one position: goaltending. In Matthews’ seven years, the Maple Leafs have had nine goaltenders who’ve played 10 or more games in a season. Here’s a look at the team’s starting goalies in that time.

Related: Insider Says Unsigned Auston Matthews To Be Traded This Summer

Now, the cap situation has made it difficult to keep goalies long-term. It has to be one reason why the Maple Leafs have failed to address their goaltending needs as the Tampa Bay Lightning did with Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Making a Splash With Frederick Anderson

In June 2016, Toronto made a splash when they acquired Frederik Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a first-rounder in 2016 and a second-rounder in 2017. Almost instantly, former Maple Leafs general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello signed Andersen to a five-year contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $5 million. He seemed to be exactly what the roster was lacking; a dominant goalie. They got just that. He was a workhorse, which, to this day, has proven to be his best and worst trait. Andersen started anywhere between 50-60 games per season for four of the five seasons that he spent in Toronto, which wore on him down the stretch and into the playoffs. 

Frederik Andersen Toronto Maple Leafs
Frederik Andersen with the Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

During his five-year span in Toronto, he played 268 games and started 267 of them. His record was 149-74-36, with a .914 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.79 goals-against average (GAA). During the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, he started 66 games, leaving only 16 games per season to the backup, who was fan favourite Curtis McElhinney. This massive workload slowed him down significantly by the end of the season and in the playoffs. It left many fans wondering what might have happened if the organization had capped his games played and allowed him to rest for the playoffs. Could he have been the goalie to lead the team to the FInal? Would we even be sitting here talking about goaltenders?

Well, maybe. Because the salary cap does exist. Had he been successful, his asking price would have been much more than the Maple Leafs could have afforded when he became eligible for an extension in 2020. Sadly, his time with the team didn’t end well. He battled some injuries during his final season with the club (2020-21), and because of that, there seemed to be some hard feelings.

When he finally returned just before the 2021 Playoffs, it was well-known that his starting job belonged to Jack Campbell, and he played backup during the team’s first-round exit against the Montreal Canadiens in the 2020 Playoffs, not even playing one minute of action. That essentially ended the relationship between him and the team, and that offseason, he signed a two-year deal (with an AAV of $4.5 million) with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Emergence of Campbell

Campbell (known to Leafs Nation as “Soup” or “Soupy”) was acquired along with Kyle Clifford by GM Kyle Dubas in May 2020. The Maple Leafs gave up forward Trevor Moore, a third-round pick in 2020, and another third in 2021. When he stepped in for the injured Andersen, he hung on to the role. He played an unbelievable stretch and helped lead the club to the top spot in the NHL North Division. Even though the team fell short, thankfully, he was signed for an additional year, and when Andersen signed with the Hurricanes, it meant Campbell would take the reigns.

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell with the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In Campbell’s first season as a bonafide NHL starter, he helped carry the team to the playoffs with a 31-9-6 record in 49 games, a .914 SV%, and a 2.64 GAA, leaving the other 33 games to be split between a plethora of backups, including Petr Mrazek, Michael Hutchinson, Erik Källgren, and Joseph Woll. There was a stretch when both Campbell and Mrazek were injured, and Källgren held down the fort until they came back. When Campbell returned, he prepared for the playoffs before the Maple Leafs squared off against the Lightning in a very intense series that went seven games. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, they were eliminated in the first round again.

Pit Stop for Mrazek

When the Maple Leafs lost Andersen to the Hurricanes, they decided to sign Carolina’s former goaltender, Mrazek, agreeing to terms on a three-year deal worth $3.8 million per season. The team still had Campbell under contract, so the idea was that Mrazek would be a competitive backup. He was also a proven goalie whose market value was low, which interested the Maple Leafs, who believed he could outperform the value of his contract. Unfortunately, he did the opposite.

He appeared in a total of 20 games for the organization, with a 12-6 record, a .888 SV%, and a 3.34 GAA, which was almost identical to their third-string goalie, Källgren. Not only did he have a terrible season, but he also struggled badly with injuries. Although it was known he had a long list of injuries in his career, the Maple Leafs still committed to bringing him in. After the season, the team moved his contract along with a first-round pick, to the Chicago Blackhawks for an early second-round pick, which they used to select Fraser Minten, and free up cap space.

Samsonov & Murray Sharing the Crease

Before this season, the Maple Leafs flipped Mrazek to the Blackhawks while Campbell walked in free agency, signing with the Edmonton Oilers. As a result, Dubas traded for Matt Murray along with a third-rounder in 2023, and a seventh in 2024, in exchange for future considerations.

Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe had a relationship with Murray from their time in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and they believed their best option was to take a chance on a player who could provide high value. Management also wanted to add a secondary option, so when Ilya Samsonov was left unqualified by the Washington Capitals, they capitalized on a very cheap signing, agreeing to a one-year, $1.8 million deal.

Ilya Samsonov Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Samsonov and Murray have played very well this season. Unfortunately, Murray has battled injuries, which has drastically lessened his workload when he was expected to split the bulk of games with Samsonov. He has only played 20 games for an 11-6-4 record, a .908 SV%, and a 2.80 GAA. Meanwhile, Samsonov has stepped up and shouldered most of the workload, playing 33 games, with a record of 23-8-2, a .915 SV%, and a 2.41 GAA. Källgren and Woll have also played when needed, but for the most part, it has been Samsonov – who is set to become a restricted free agent (RFA) at the end of the season. Dubas should prioritize signing him to a long-term deal, somewhere in the range of a five-year, $20 million deal, before the end of the campaign.

The Maple Leafs could use this tandem again next season or try to trade Murray and let either Woll or Källgren become the backup – goalies they have been developing for the last couple of years. However, Toronto seems to have found their replacement for Andersen and Campbell in Samsonov. He has proven to be a reliable netminder who has helped carry them to a top-five position in the NHL.

Matt Murray Toronto Maple Leafs
Matt Murray, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Toronto has cap issues, and both Matthews and Nylander are eligible for an extension as of July. 1, although Dubas has them both for one more year at their current cap hit, meaning that he should be able to re-sign Samsonov and then deal with the cap problems before he re-signs one or both of them. Moving out Murray’s cap hit of $4.687 million would give them the room they need.

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Toronto does have a viable backup option in the American Hockey League (AHL) in Woll, who was a third-round pick by the Maple Leafs in the 2016 NHL Draft. Since then, the organization has been developing him and he is proving that he can compete at the NHL level, albeit with a small sample size. If he becomes the regular backup (or even the starter down the road), he will be the first goalie since James Reimer in 2010-2011 that the organization has drafted and developed who went on to become a regular.

Needless to say, the organization has suffered greatly as a result of Toronto’s mishandling of its goaltending. The outcome has spanned longer than just the seven years that Matthews has been with the team. It has been an ongoing issue since Reimer broke into the league.

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