TORONTO – The decision, if there even was one, basically makes itself now.
Ilya Samsonov will almost certainly be the last line of defence for the Toronto Maple Leafs entering the playoffs after goaltending partner Matt Murray was sidelined by injury for the third time this season.
That was a strong possibility even with a crease at full health because of Samsonov’s stellar play, but the Leafs were keeping their options open in the waning days of the regular season.
Murray had effectively been granted the benefit of the doubt in those considerations due to his Stanley Cup rings and sparkling .921 save percentage in 50 career playoff starts. At least until the other notable aspect of his resume – injuries – resurfaced over the weekend and removed him from the equation.
The latest setback came on a freak play, with Detroit’s Lucas Raymond accidentally sweeping his feet out and toppling him backwards, causing a head injury and what head coach Sheldon Keefe described as “some other stuff as well.”
The timing could hardly have been worse.
The Leafs are officially labelling his absence as day-to-day, but given Murray’s extensive concussion history in Pittsburgh and Ottawa there’s no reason to believe he’ll be back any time soon.
He’s had a notoriously tough time establishing any consistent rhythm in his game. Murray only made seven starts after enduring a six-week absence with an ankle issue and he missed a month earlier in the season because of an adductor injury.
Acquired last summer from the Senators for his playoff pedigree, it’s unclear if he’ll be any factor at all in a best-of-seven series with the Tampa Bay Lightning due to start in two weeks.
That removes a layer of insurance in the event Samsonov stumbles or runs into his own injury troubles. He’s been a bright spot for the Leafs and has already established a new career-high this season with 25 wins alongside a .915 save percentage, but he didn’t handle the playoff spotlight well during his time with the Washington Capitals as evidenced by a 1-6 lifetime record.
He’s also now sharing the crease with 24-year-old Joseph Woll, who is in the midst of an outstanding American Hockey League campaign but was making just his ninth career NHL appearance with Tuesday’s start against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Put another way: With Murray on the sidelines, the Leafs will be dressing a goaltending tandem with 79 fewer career playoff victories than the Lightning’s duo of Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brian Elliott.
They will, of course, try to keep the focus on what’s happened more recently. They’ve got no other choice.
“With Sammy and Joe, we’ve got lots of confidence there,” said Keefe. “Sammy’s been really really rolling towards the playoffs here. From that side of it, I don’t think [Murray’s injury is] much of a disruption.”
One way or another it always felt like this Maple Leafs season would hinge on goaltending.
That’s been an area the organization has been trying to shore up ever since Kyle Dubas was promoted to general manager in 2018. A thin free-agent pool forced him to get creative with the position last summer, and all things being equal he made out exceptionally well by signing Samsonov to a $1.8-million, one-year deal while acquiring third- and seventh-round draft picks from the Senators as a sweetener to take on Murray’s contract at 75 per cent of its remaining value.
While Dubas would obviously prefer to have extracted more value from Murray’s $4.69-million cap hit and still needs to figure out what to do with the remaining year on that contract next season – LTIR seems increasingly likely – he avoided a serious landmine by refusing to commit term to incumbent Jack Campbell.
43 goalies have played at least 400 minutes at 5v5 over their team's last 25 games.— Jonathan Willis (@JonathanWillis) March 29, 2023
Jack Campbell (.873) has the worst 5v5 SV% of the bunch. Stuart Skinner (.905) is five points south of the median.
Edmonton's likely first-round opponent, Joonas Korpisalo (0.944), ranks third.
The Edmonton Oilers would love a redo on the $25-million, five-year contract they gave to him.
Dubas cashed big on his buy-low bet with Samsonov, landing a team-controlled goaltender with a better winning percentage and save percentage than any of the other available options on the market last July while earning considerably less than Campbell, Darcy Kuemper, Ville Husso and Marc-Andre Fleury each signed for more elsewhere.
Samsonov arrived with a solid pedigree as a former first-round pick, but he had his maturity questioned in Washington and ultimately wore out his welcome with the Capitals. They didn’t even extend him a qualifying offer last summer.
The 26-year-old was far from a sure thing, but he’s parlayed a “prove it” year in Toronto into by far his strongest NHL campaign.
The Leafs need to hope it holds up under the intense pressure of the playoffs.
Those were the games Murray was effectively brought in to start, but circumstances appear to have altered those plans.
Entering Tuesday, here’s how last summer’s free-agent goaltenders have performed this season:
Ilya Samsonov, Toronto: 25-11-4, .915
Darcy Kuemper, Washington: 21-25-6, .910
Marc-Andre Fleury, Minnesota: 24-14-4, .910
Ville Husso, Detroit: 25-19-6, .899
Jack Campbell, Edmonton: 20-9-4, .886