At the start of the season, it seemed that the only thing worse than the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defence was their goaltending. Now we are at the quarter mark of the season, and the tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov has been nothing short of impressive. Although they have battled some injuries, they have also stood on their heads when the team needed it most. With that said, we also need to give some love to third-string goaltender Erik Källgren who also played above expectations when he was called upon for the stretch games when both Murray and Samsonov were injured.
This season, Murray and Samsonov have appeared in 14 games and have a combined 10-3-1 record. Murray has a 4-1-1 record with a 2.51 goals-against average (GAA) and .921 save percentage (SV%), and Samsonov has a 6-2 record with a 2.23 GAA and a .921 SV%. Combined, their stats have been much better than most analysts expected; some ranked the Maple Leafs’ tandem sixth among the NHL’s Canadian markets.
Their advanced stats also support the argument that both of them have played better than expected this season. Samsonov has a 21.86 expected goals against (xGA) and currently sits 12th in the NHL, and Murray has an 18.3 xGA, which puts him in seventh in that category. Furthermore, they rank in the top 15 (13th and 14th) in the NHL in SV%.
When the Maple Leafs acquired Murray, most fans shook their heads because he appeared to be “washed up,” and it felt like a desperation move by general manager Kyle Dubas. However, management wasn’t lying when they reassured them that he would be ready to compete for the starting job.
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Before the trade that brought Murray to the team, Toronto also hired a new goalie coach, Curtis Sanford, who has experience working with him. Sanford was tasked to help Murray bring his game back to the level it was with the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he won two Stanley Cups. It is public knowledge that they worked together to make adjustments in his stance and how he moves in the crease. That adjustment has eliminated a lower stance with a wider base that was making it harder for him to move east-west and replaced it with an upright stance with a narrower base that helps him move in the crease side-to-side more efficiently. This change in style has been effective, as his higher stance allows him to play out further on an odd-man rush and cut off the angle and gives him the time to get across to save the east-west scoring chances.
Unfortunately, there are still concerns about possible injuries. After only one game with his new team, an abductor injury landed him on injured reserve (IR). However, since his return, he has been lights out; with a 4-0-1 record, he has allowed his team to win, despite the state of the defensive core. If Murray can keep playing at this level, it will alleviate some of the stress on Dubas and management to find a quality starter by the trade deadline.
Samsonov has also proven many people wrong after he was not qualified by the Washington Capitals and signed as a free agent with the Maple Leafs on a “bet on himself ” contract. He was expected to share the net, but after Murray’s injury abruptly threw Samsonov into the starter role, he found his groove. He posted a 6-2 record at a time when the Maple Leafs’ star power was not at the level it is today. Some could argue that without him, the team would be in a much worse place than they are now.
Unfortunately, Samsonov was also hurt after he bit too hard on a deke from Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand during a penalty shot and hurt his knee. He has been out for a few weeks, which gave his counterpart some runway between the pipes. However, there is a sense that he will return very soon and could be in the net for the Maple Leafs this week. If both goalies can play as well as they have so far this season, they will increase Toronto’s chances of finding playoff success.
Both Murray and Samsonov were highly-touted goaltending prospects, and although Murray won two Cups with the Penguins, he has fallen short of his career expectations, especially when he played for the Ottawa Senators. One of the perks of playing for a team like the Maple Leafs is their extended budget that allows for a full goaltending department. Obviously, the common goal is to help the goalies improve on a daily basis, and this setup has seemed to benefit Murray and help him find more confidence in his game.
When Samsonov was drafted, he was often mentioned in the same conversation as Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin. These three Russian-born goalies were supposed to be the new wave of elite goaltenders in the NHL, and although it has worked out for Shesterkin and Sorokin, Samsonov hasn’t found the same success. Although he had a good run with the Capitals, he eventually fell out of favour after struggling to find consistency in his game. However, since coming to the Maple Leafs, he has worked with the goaltending department and found ways to keep focused and maintain that consistency for a full 60 minutes.
Overall, the Maple Leafs’ goaltending tandem has proven to those who passed on them that they can turn their careers around with the right staff to help support them. They have far exceeded expectations this season so far.
Spencer Lazary is a writer at The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He loves to talk about all things Maple Leafs as well as scouting and prospects, he has been writing about Hockey and Prospect Scouting since 2020, and he also is a co-host of a Maple Leafs-themed podcast called “Leafs Talk Forever“