It’s no secret that Matt Murray‘s time in Canada’s capital is likely finished. He’s played well when healthy, but since his arrival, those appearances have been few and far between. With two other NHL-calibre goalies behind him in Anton Forsberg and Filip Gustavsson, plus a talented youngster in Mads Sogaard waiting in the wings, Murray’s days in Ottawa appear to be numbered. However, a buyout seemed like the only solution; no team was in the market for an oft-injured starter with a championship pedigree but little recent success.
That is, not until NHL insider Chris Johnston appeared on TSN 1050 to talk about the Toronto Maple Leafs’ goaltending situation. After firing their goalie coach, it appears that larger changes may be coming, especially as a starter and pending free agent Jack Campbell remains unsigned, and backup Petr Mrazek struggled mightily to live up to his lucrative deal. Now, with Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson potentially on the move this offseason, the goaltending market got a whole lot more interesting.
A lot of dominos need to fall, but if the Ducks move their goaltender to help their rebuild, they’ll set off a chain reaction. Several teams will be looking for goalie upgrades, but only one can acquire Gibson. That means a previously locked goalie market will suddenly open up, and it will be the perfect time for the Senators to move on from Murray.
The Senators Need to Move Murray
When the Senators acquired Murray at the 2020 NHL Draft from the Pittsburgh Penguins for a second-round pick and a minor prospect, it looked like a coup. He had two Stanley Cup rings, a plethora of American Hockey League (AHL) honours, and was still just 26 years old. There were some consistency and injury issues, and he had been replaced by a younger goalie in Tristan Jarry, but he didn’t seem that far removed from posting a 1.70 goals against average (GAA) in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. Ottawa thought they had their goalie of the future and quickly signed him to a four-year deal at a cap hit of $6.25 million.
Two seasons later, and it’s painfully clear that management was not correct in their projection. With the Senators, Murray has appeared in 47 games, posting a 15-25-3 record and averaging over three goals against a game. His save percentage (SV%) improved slightly from a .893 in 2020-21 to a .906 this season, but that still put him among some of the worst starters in the league. Only seven starting netminders finished with a lower SV% than him this season, while only just one last year posted worse stats.
It’s, of course, unfair to blame Murray’s poor numbers simply on the goalie. The Senators’ defence is in shambles; this season, Ottawa ranked in the bottom half of the league in both expected goals against and high-danger chances that resulted in goals. With the sixth-highest shots against in 2021-22, their defence gave very little support to a goalie that already struggled with staying healthy, which resulted in more injuries. That forced the team to overplay their best defenceman, Thomas Chabot, which likewise caused more injuries. Then, to fix the problem, the team brought in Michael Del Zotto and Travis Hamonic, which unsurprisingly did little to fix anything.
However, Forsberg’s emergence this season has raised the question of whether he should be the team’s starter, at least in the short term. Gustavsson has also shown flashes of brilliance and made the argument on the ice that he could also start for the Senators, and although he struggled this season, he still has the potential to return to form. But even if neither of them works out, the Senators have some strong options down the pipeline. Sogaard had a very strong AHL debut, even making a couple of NHL appearances, and Leevi Merilainen was one of the best goalies in the Ontario Hockey League.
But despite the team’s weaknesses, the Senators need to find an upgrade in their crease. Murray’s health is not getting better, the defence will not improve overnight, and for a team looking to extend its bright young stars to big deals, his contract will prevent the team from giving out the money that they feel they deserve. It’s why he’s No. 2 on Daily Faceoff’s top buyout candidates, as it seemed like that was the only solution to freeing themselves from their underperforming goalie. But if the Maple Leafs want to change things up, he suddenly becomes a viable trade chip, especially for a team also looking to part ways with a struggling goaltender.
The Maple Leafs’ Complicated Goaltending Situation
Campbell was a breakout star in 2020-21, posting a 17-3-2 record along with two shutouts and a .921 SV%, placing him ninth in the league among goalies who started at least 20 games. In the playoffs, he was even better, recording a .934 SV%, as well as a measly 1.81 GAA in seven games before the Montreal Canadiens upset the Maple Leafs. Only Andrei Vasilevskiy had a higher SV%, and he went on to win the Stanley Cup. It was always going to be difficult to follow such a performance, and he expectedly took a slight step back, posting a .914 SV%, but still had a strong record of 31-9-6.
Then the playoffs hit, and Campbell was one of the worst, posting a .897 SV% in seven games en route to yet another first-round elimination. His dismal stats were only bested by Ville Husso’s .890 SV% among goalies with at least seven games in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but at least the St. Louis Blues were in the Conference Semifinal. Like Murray, the Maple Leafs’ defence deserves a lot of the blame rather than their goalie. But after another disappointing exit, the team will be looking to make some sweeping changes, and it looks like it will start between the pipes.
If Campbell becomes a free agent, it won’t solely be because of one playoff performance. The Maple Leafs are in a bit of a cap crunch with just under $8 million in cap space. But with both Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin needing new deals, there may not be enough room to also give Campbell what he’s worth. Based on similar players, he’s likely looking at a $5 million deal, leaving enough room for just one talented defenceman. Further complicating matters is Mrazek, who had an awful 2021-22, recording an .888 SV% in 20 games, the worst numbers of his career. However, he’s still under contract for two more seasons at $3.8 million per year. Shedding that deal would give Toronto just enough breathing room to re-sign everyone they wanted.
Gibson Will Be Too Expensive for Toronto
That’s where Gibson comes in. Despite his poor numbers over the last couple of seasons, he’s been consistently one of the better performing goaltenders despite playing on some very weak teams and would certainly give a boost to the Maple Leafs’ crease. But with a contract of $6.4 million per year until 2026-27, he may be too expensive for a team with little cap room. If they’re serious about making a big change, then Toronto should try to get him for the right price, but with the Edmonton Oilers also likely looking for a goalie upgrade along with several other underperforming teams, it will come down to who is willing to pay the most.
Another problem is that there is no pressure for the Ducks to move Gibson, so to convince them to part with the best goalie they’ve seen since Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the offer will have to be significant. Can the Maple Leafs provide that? There’s no doubt they’re interested, but there’s no way they can put together a competitive package that also won’t hurt them in other areas.
But with all that said, Murray doesn’t seem to work into the Maple Leafs’ plans. His contract is only slightly cheaper, slightly younger, and his decline has been going on for slightly longer. However, Murray played for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds from 2010 to 2014. That’s significant because Kyle Dubas became the Greyhounds’ general manager in 2011, and he has made it a priority to seek out former players he worked with since becoming general manager of the Maple Leafs in 2014-15. So far, most of his acquisitions have worked out, too; Campbell, Michael Bunting, and even Sheldon Keefe are all alumni of the organization and have been spectacular with the Maple Leafs. Nick Ritchie didn’t work out, but that seems to be an outlier.
So, could Murray revive his career in Toronto? It’s entirely possible. Tyler Ennis, once a highly-touted prospect of the Buffalo Sabres, was derailed by injuries and struggled to find his place in an NHL lineup. But in the 2017-18 offseason, he signed with the Maple Leafs because of their excellent medical staff. When he then signed with the Senators, he looked almost 10 years younger on the ice and put up his best numbers in five seasons.
But the best part for the Maple Leafs is that the Senators would happily take back someone like Mrazek in a trade. Like Dubas and his Greyhounds connection, the Senators have thrived with reclamation projects, and Ennis is just one example. Kyle Turris was struggling to live up to his third overall selection until a stint in Ottawa. Anthony Duclair spent one season in Ottawa before putting up career numbers. Nick Paul was a throw-in to the Jason Spezza deal before becoming a bonafide shutdown forward. Even Forsberg was a career journeyman and regular waiver claim before this season. If there is anywhere where Mrazek could re-find his rhythm, it would be in Ottawa.
There’s no guarantee that Gibson will get traded or that the Maple Leafs will look to move on from Campbell, but if the Ducks set off the first domino, then the subsequent events will be relative chaos. Thankfully, the Senators can sit back and watch as teams struggle to acquire one of the game’s best goalies, and then when the Maple Leafs inevitably fail to bring him in, they can capitalize on the open market and use it to move Murray. There has never been a better time to trade their goalie, and if Ottawa doesn’t want to be forced to start with three goalies in the fall, they need to make the most of this opportunity.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.