Maple Leafs’ Samsonov Making the Most of His Early Opportunity

Strikingly similar to the 2021-22 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have gotten off to an iffy start in 2022-23. While there have been some positive signs, including a recent character win over the Winnipeg Jets, there have also been some eerily familiar concerns. The biggest one being the team’s frustrating tendency to play down to their opponent’s level, seen in a pair of losses to the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes.

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Depending on how much sports media you consumed over the summer, you would think the team’s 4-3-0 start is in part due to their goaltending situation. The replacement of Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek with Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov was met with massive skepticism by lots of people, largely in part to the question marks surrounding both goalies. Murray with his cap hit and injury history, and Samsonov with his statistical decline in his young NHL career over the past three years. 

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

With Murray suffering a groin injury ahead of what would have been only his second start of the season, Samsonov stepped into a much bigger role than he was expecting to get to kick off his tenure with the Maple Leafs. But, given what he’s been able to do in the early going, he’s doing all the right things early on to be the team’s starting goalie, even once Murray returns from his injury. 

Samsonov Brings Stability, Personality to Maple Leafs Crease 

It’s hard to be a goalie in the Toronto market, so if you’re calm and don’t get rattled easily, you’ve already got better odds of succeeding there. And so far, that’s been the story of Samsonov’s first few games. In his first five games with the team, he has a record of 4-1-0 with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.01 and a save percentage (SV%) of .932. This is obviously much too small of a sample size to make any premature claims about him, but the Maple Leafs couldn’t have asked for much more out of him so far. 

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Samsonov has allowed two goals or less in four of his five starts, with the only three-goal game coming Monday night (Oct. 24) against the Vegas Golden Knights. In his defense, that game was arguably the team’s most lackluster effort of the season so far. He doesn’t make too many flashy saves, but he has a very stable glove hand (which is refreshing considering that’s Murray’s biggest weakness), and he has a knack for making saves even when he can’t see the puck through traffic. His only glaring weakness is his puck handling behind the net, but that’s something that can be worked on throughout the season. 

On top of this, he appears to also be a hit in the Maple Leafs’ dressing room, which is a nice bonus considering how popular Campbell was with his teammates last season. He coined the term “have some smile” to describe his mood after good games, and likes to keep his media soundbites simple and to the point, much like his style of play. 

Samsonov’s Early Success Could Be a Positive For Murray

When you think about the pros and cons of having a tandem like Murray and Samsonov this season, the obvious risk is the uncertainty around whether or not they can hit the potential they carry. But, the one thing they have going for them in helping them achieve that potential, is the internalized competition between them. Both goalies have something to play for this year, in terms of team success as well as personal success, and Samsonov pulling ahead early on shouldn’t deter Murray from bouncing back when he returns. 

With a tandem like this one, where there’s not really a bonafide number one, the obvious play is to run with whichever goalie is hotter. Assuming Samsonov keeps this play up, the only way Murray is going to get consistent starts upon his return is if he shows the Maple Leafs that he’s capable of the same success. We saw signs of it in the preseason, as well, seeing that he was statistically the better goalie between the two. And if he doesn’t return, he could very well be moved in the offseason. General manager Kyle Dubas has parted ways with his mistakes before (see Mrazek) and Murray being a former Soo Greyhound won’t spare him from the same result if he doesn’t perform when he returns. 

Fans Should Take Cautious Optimism Approach With Samsonov 

It’s a pretty cool story overall, with Samsonov being the first Russian goalie in Maple Leafs history (which is crazy to think about), along with his funny personality and stability in the crease. It’s a success story that’s easy to root for. Having said that, fans shouldn’t be crowning him as the next saviour of the crease just yet. It seems like a Captain Obvious statement, but a hot start is just that, a hot start. He’s also had a tendency to start strong only to slip as the season moves along. 

For example, the trajectory of his 2021-22 season was similar to Campbell’s, in that he had a strong October and November, but was generally poor for the remainder of the season. In the first two months last season, Samsonov had a record of 9-1-1 with a GAA of 2.52 and a SV% of .915. Between December and April, however, he had a record of 14-11-4 with a GAA of 3.22 and a SV% of .888. I’m still confident that he can keep his steady play up throughout the season, mostly because he’s still young and this is his first season with a new team, but it’s still worth erring on the side of caution about.

Samsonov Will Likely Start Next Two Games 

Head coach Sheldon Keefe hasn’t announced his plans for Thursday’s tilt against the San Jose Sharks, or Saturday’s game versus the Los Angeles Kings, but it would be safe to assume that Samsonov will be between the pipes for both games, with Erik Kallgren starting Sunday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks. He’s earned these next two starts, as he’s yet to really put up a stinker of a game so far. 

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With Murray sidelined for four weeks from Oct. 15, Samsonov has at least another two or three weeks to take a stranglehold on the starting job. In a perfect world, Murray would come back from injury, have a few strong starts of his own, and give the Maple Leafs a tandem they can rely on no matter who’s starting. But, that’s a big ask and remains to be seen until he returns. For now, fans should feel cautiously confident in Samsonov’s hands after his first five games.

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