After last season, I truly never thought that Ilya Samsonov would be anything but the Toronto Maple Leafs’ starting goalie this season. However, things change fast. Samsonov just hasn’t been the same goalie that he was last season, and his counterpart, Joseph Woll, has simply been better. The two have been a tandem so far this season, but Woll essentially took over the role as the starting goalie for the Maple Leafs and left Samsonov as the backup with a $3.55 million cap hit.
Personally, the questions start to swirl regarding whether they should move on from Samsonov and use Woll as their full-time starting goalie. Or is it too early to decide that, given Woll’s smaller sample size at the NHL level? Well, albeit small, Woll has been good, but with his latest injury, it could force Samsonov to get out of his early-season slump and solidify his future with the Maple Leafs. A week ago, I was preparing to ask the question of whether the Maple Leafs should trade Samsonov and allocate his cap hit elsewhere to improve the team and use Martin Jones as the backup. While that still could happen if Woll plays well when he returns, his injury could also force Samsonov to play better or end in him being traded.
It is no secret that Samsonov has been off this season. Last season, he was good and overall consistent, which begs the question: What changed? Was it the salary arbitration? Or is it the pressure of the Toronto market? Or could it be the fact that Woll has emerged on the scene as the future? Either way, he hasn’t been the same this season, and it is extremely noticeable. Unfortunately, hockey is a business, and that means regardless of how much the team or organization likes a player, if they aren’t performing, they can be moved. That is what he is trending to be: expendable. However, there is still time to turn it around and use this time with Woll out as a chance to prove he can still be what the club expects him to be.
Samsonov has played in 11 games this season, is 5-1-3, and has been pulled in two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. This puts him on pace for 15 wins over 35 games played; last season he appeared in 42 games, so I scaled the games back to 25 more appearances with only 58 games left in the season. However, this number could go up to around 44-45 games, but it seems doubtful if Woll returns and plays well.
Last season, in the 42 games, his record was 27-10-5. This is a 64.2% winning percentage; this season he has a 45% winning percentage, which would be the lowest of his career. Aside from that, his save percentage (SV%) and goals-against average (GAA) are also projected to be the worst in his career; right now, through 10 games, he has a .886 SV% and a 3.21 GAA. Now, this is subject to change with him playing more, but it could also go up if he has a few stinkers in the net.
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Nevertheless, Samsonov does have some time with Woll, set to miss time, to prove his worth again. He got the start against the Nashville Predators on Dec. 9 and earned himself a shutout. It isn’t fair to ask him to keep this up; however, if he can be as confident as he was against the Predators, we may see the old Samsonov we are used to seeing. He has struggled this season, and there could be multiple factors as to why that happened, but now those games are behind him, and he has a real chance to prove to his teammates, coaching staff, and fanbase that he can be the guy to help lead this team to the promised land.
Maple Leafs Have the Goaltending Depth
For years, the Maple Leafs were a team that seemed to struggle to find homegrown goaltenders. But in the last few NHL Drafts, the team has targeted goaltending, especially in the last few years of Kyle Dubas’ tenure with the club. Due to this, it takes some of the pressure off of the management group when you have goalies both scratching the surface and finally taking control of the net like Woll has. This past offseason, the team signed Jones. He is a serviceable NHL goalie, even as a backup to a younger starter. Last season, he had the same amount of wins with the Seattle Kraken as Samsonov did with the Maple Leafs with 27, and this season has shown management that he just wants to play.
Yes, he’d probably prefer the NHL, but he accepted his role and will most likely end up having a big impact on the young goalies on the Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. This season with the Marlies, Jones is 2-1-1 with a 3.37 GAA and a .870 SV% in five appearances. He could also find himself as the backup for the Maple Leafs this season, depending on what happens around the NHL Trade Deadline on March 8, 2024. There could be a world where the Maple Leafs trade Samsonov, use Woll as their starter, and promote Jones as the NHL backup.
Aside from Jones, the organization has a handful of good goalie prospects. Starting with Dennis Hildeby, he is with the Marlies and has done well. The 22-year-old is a native of Sweden and has a record of 4-3-2 with a 1.89 GAA as well as a .925 SV% in nine games. They also have Keith Petruzzelli, who has played in seven games and has a record of 3-3-1, a 3.33 GAA, and a .874 SV%. Petruzzelli and Hildeby are going to be getting a ton more action with Jones called up to the Maple Leafs with Woll’s high ankle sprain injury. Furthermore, the organizational depth between the pipes allows the team to trade Samsonov if he doesn’t turn around his season without worrying about who will replace him.
Cap Space is Everything to Maple Leafs
There is one thing that every NHL fan base can agree on, and that is that cap space is everything. Especially for teams that are playoff contenders like the Maple Leafs. They require cap space to address areas on their team, such as their blue line and maybe even another depth scorer. Typically, closer to the NHL Trade Deadline, there will be teams that become third-party brokers to help facilitate a trade. Unfortunately, this season, teams that you would expect to do well are doing better than anticipated. There are still teams that will do it, but the price will be significantly higher. This means teams like the Maple Leafs may need to clear cap space first to upgrade their rosters. Samsonov is a name that could be dealt if he doesn’t overcome his struggles.
Samsonov’s cap hit is $3.55 million, which is a good amount of money to use to acquire a solid defenceman for the playoffs. That number would have been enough to make the trade for Nikita Zadorov that the Vancouver Canucks made. It would also be enough to take on 78 percent of Chris Tanev’s cap hit of $4.5 million, leaving the Calgary Flames with only $950,000 left to retain if the two teams could work out a deal. That would lower the asking price for the Flames and make the deal easier to complete. All in all, cap space for any team is very important, but the Maple Leafs need it badly to help improve their team and make a solid push in the playoffs. This means Samsonov could be on the hot seat ahead of the NHL Trade Deadline.
Samsonov still has time to turn things around. He will be given a lot more starts with Woll being out, and in that time he will need to prove to the organization that he deserves to be a part of the team. He started on the right foot against the Predators with his 11th career shutout. If he can keep this momentum going, he should be okay; however, if he continues to be inconsistent, the Maple Leafs may look at moving him to use his $3.55 million cap hit elsewhere.