As it stands, the Toronto Maple Leafs have decided to enter the 2021-2022 NHL season with a couple of reclamation projects in net. It’s understandable that much of the fanbase would be upset about this, as goaltending is easily the sport’s most important position and can largely be blamed for many of Toronto’s failures over the past few seasons.
That said, the two goalies that will be battling for the job of Maple Leafs starters going into the season are ones with high upside and a proven track record of success before their recent struggles. Matt Murray had the unique distinction of winning two Stanley Cups as a rookie, stealing the net from Marc-André Fleury during the 2016 playoffs with only 13 NHL games under his belt, allowing him to remain a rookie for next season when the Penguins went back-to-back.
Meanwhile, Ilya Samsonov comes to Toronto after failing to meet expectations in Washington. The former first round put up stunning numbers in three KHL seasons after being selected by the Capitals in the first round, followed by a great rookie season in 2019-2020. Since then however, Samsonov has struggled to replicate those numbers and ultimately Washington let him explore free agency despite a strong performance in the 2022 playoffs.
The Maple Leafs are putting a lot of faith in the chance that one of these two goalies bounces back, though it’s not without precedent. Just the year prior the Carolina Hurricanes were largely mocked for signing the struggling Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta to replace Petr Mrazek and Alex Nedeljkovic who were both fantastic for Carolina the year prior. A year later and Carolina’s two new goalies won the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals during the season while their two exes struggled as two of the league’s worst netminders.
Does anyone think Toronto will have some of the league’s best goaltending with these two new goalies? Probably not, but it may not be the total disaster some are making it out to be either. Plenty of goalies in recent memory have had a fantastic bounceback season after a change of scenery brought them away from an old team where it seemed like their best days may be behind them. If even one of Murray or Samsonov can return to their old form, suddenly the Leafs biggest question mark may become one of their greatest strengths.
It’s not as rare as you may think either, here are just a few examples of times a change of scenery has helped revive a goalie’s career.
Frederik Andersen & Antti Raanta
Let’s get the one we already mentioned out of the way. Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta both began their careers with impressive resumes before faltering later on. Freddie had already won a Jennings during his time in Anaheim and then received Vezina votes in two of his first three years in Toronto before posting a string of poor results and ultimately losing the net to Jack Campbell.
Meanwhile, Raanta was once considered one of the league’s best backups while stuck behind Henrik Lundqvist in New York before being traded to Arizona where he thrived upon arrival before lack of playing time caused by injuries and league shutdowns caused his numbers to plummet.
Cut to this past season where Andersen finished fourth in Vezina voting after putting up a .922 save percentage with Raanta matching that number over 13 playoff games after Freddie was forced to miss time due to injury. In blackjack terms, Carolina split their bet across two hands and cashed out both in a big way.
No discussion of Matt Murray would be complete without a mention of his former teammate Marc-André Fleury. Despite an outstanding performance in the 2017 NHL playoffs to help win Pittsburgh’s second cup in a row, the Penguins actually sent the Golden Knights their second round pick to ensure that Fleury was taken over Matt Murray in the expansion draft. Fleury’s older age and a .909 save percentage during the regular season meant that many saw him as an expendable asset for a team who seemed to have found their goalie of the future.
What came next was one of the most exciting underdog stories in the history of sports as Fleury helped lead the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Finals in only their first year of existence with a roster full of cast-off players that other teams didn’t want. Two years later, the goalie they call Flower would win his first Vezina award at 36-years-old.
On the subject of old future Hall of Fame goalies who lost their job to a young up and comer, Ed Belfour was seen by many as a poor replacement for Curtis Joseph when the Maple Leafs signed him in the summer of 2002. Eddie the Eagle had just posted a miserable .895 save percentage, with only a .905 the year prior. The Dallas Stars elected to not re-sign the veteran netminder, instead going with Marty Turco who was not only a decade younger but was widely considered one of the league’s best backups putting up numbers far better than most starters.
During his first year in Toronto, Balfour not only saw his save percentage bounce back to a spectacular .922, but he also set a franchise record for most wins in a season with 37 and received his first Vezina nomination in over a decade. He would follow that up with another strong season in Toronto, finishing 10th in Hart Trophy voting before a combination of the 2005 lockout and old age finally saw his numbers dip.
In the 2008-2009 season, a 20-year-old Steve Mason took the NHL by storm, starting 61 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets and single-handedly dragging them into a playoff spot with 30 wins, a league-leading 10 shutouts, and a .916 save percentage. For his efforts, Mason handedly won the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year with 96.06% of the votes while also finishing as the Vezina runner-up and fourth in Hart voting. Unfortunately, Mason was never able to repeat this miracle debut, spending the next three seasons as a completely unremarkable goalie and leaving many wondering if he was just a one hit wonder.
Near the end of another awful year that saw him lose his starting job in Columbus, Mason was moved at the trade deadline to the Philadelphia Flyers where things immediately turned around. Starting six games for the Flyers during the remaining month of that season, Mason went 4-2 with a shocking .944 save percentage and 1.90 GAA. Over each of the next three seasons, Mason went on to produce numbers even better than his rookie season, once again helping to carry an otherwise weak team into the playoffs multiple times.
A former first round pick who had a promising start to his career, quickly becoming not only Edmonton’s best goalie but one of the lone bright spots on a team that continuously found itself near the bottom of the standings. After three straight seasons posting good numbers on bad teams, Dubnyk’s numbers plummeted and so did his career. He went from a .920 save percentage and 2.57 GAA in 2012-2013 to a save percentage of .891 and 3.43 GAA the next year which included a mid-season trade to Nashville where things only got worse. By the end of the season, Dubnyk was traded again, this time to Montreal where he failed to appear in a single NHL game for the Canadiens, instead spending time in the minors before leaving as a free agent.
That summer, Dubnyk signed with his fourth NHL team of the past calendar year, agreeing to a one year deal with the Arizona Coyotes. Despite posting some of the best numbers of his career, Dubnyk was again traded that season to the Minnesota Wild and was able to help them surge into a playoff spot by earning a shutout in his debut before starting a franchise-record 38 straight games and earning 27 wins, 5 shutouts, a .936 save percentage and a 1.78 GAA during that time.
That spring, Minnesota not only made it to the second round of the playoffs but Dubnyk won the Masterson trophy for reviving his career, was nominated for the Vezina, and finished fourth in Hart Trophy. Over the next four seasons he continued to be one of the NHL’s best and most consistent goalies while starting over 60 games a season.
Spend enough time online and you’ll hear mention of how “goalies are voodoo” and how difficult it is to predict which netminders will thrive and which will struggle on a year-to-year basis. The truth that many hockey fans don’t seem to want to admit, is far more goes into goaltending than any single person can notice on the ice or read on the scoresheet.
Beyond confidence issues or lingering injuries that may hamper a goalie’s reflexes and movement, goaltending is also largely determined by the defensive systems put in place in front of them. Some goalie’s prefer seeing the majority of shots from the point where they have more time to react, while others struggle with the tips, deflections, and large rebounds these types of shots often generate. During odd-man rushes, some goalies want their defenseman to play the puck-carrier and force them into bad angles while others would rather the defense focuses on cutting off passes, giving the netminder a one on one with the shooter.
If the Toronto Maple Leafs want to put Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov in the best position to succeed, they need to take a deep dive on what made these goalies successful during their best days, and what may have caused them to recently struggle. Whether it’s physical, mental, or a systems issue – something has happened to set these two clearly talented netminders back. But as we’ve seen time and time again, that issue can be remedied. After turning Jack Campbell from a career backup into an NHL all-star, the Maple Leafs braintrust may believe they have what it takes to do exactly that.
Stats from Hockey-Reference.com
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