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Going big or take the risk: The Maple Leafs goaltending debate

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Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
13 days ago
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While there isn’t any shortage of criticism to hand out following the Maple Leafs’ early departure from the playoffs, Toronto’s goaltenders more or less should be receiving a bit of a pass. Ilya Samsonov bounced between adequate and above-average throughout the series and that aligns with what can be reasonably expected of him, and Joseph Woll once again demonstrated that he can be stellar when called upon, albeit prone to injuries.
Over the longer stretch of the regular season, Samsonov and Woll both showed a few more warts, with Samsonov looking like he was destined to play out his contract in the AHL while Woll’s numbers came down to earth over the longer stretch of hockey while once again dealing with injuries. Additionally, between the two of them, they managed only 63 of the Leafs’ starts in the season, requiring 19 starts from the third-string netminder, Martin Jones. For that reason alone, it seems necessary for the Maple Leafs to explore any and all options for their net for the 2024-25 season.
The one certain thing is that Joseph Woll will be back. Playing in 25 games, with 23 starts might not be the volume of work the Leafs want from Woll, but at a $767k price point and starter quality results when he is available to play, he is a solid 1B option.
The other thing that has some promise is the future of the Leafs’ net. Dennis Hildeby and Artur Akhtyamov look like they have NHL futures ahead of them and Hildeby could start getting a look or two as soon as next season. This might not help the Leafs in the short term but deters Brad Treliving from going after a goaltender with term.
After that, everything else is up in the air and Brad Treliving has his hands full with nailing down a plan for next season. The question is whether he attempts to run it back with Samsonov, go big with a bona fide star goaltender, or explore a tandem option that hopes for more out of Woll with a solid 3rd-string safety net.

Running back Samsonov

This option seems pretty unlikely. Whether it is from the Leafs going to arbitration with Samsonov last summer or waiving him in season or the fact that committing to term with him seems incredibly unlikely from the Leafs perspective there isn’t a lot that points to Samsonov being Toronto’s preferred option.
The fact that Samsonov is very much a tandem goaltender who has hit a wall when his workload increases also prevents him from being the best option to tandem with Joseph Woll.
While the available free agent goaltender crop prevents Samsonov from being completely excluded from the list of options, he isn’t a strong case for having more appeal than mystery box options like Laurent Brossoit and Cam Talbot.

Gambling on goaltenders

As mentioned above with the Brossoit and Talbot options, the Leafs could continue to go with options that might not make goaltending their strength but should give their offence the chance to be what wins games for them. Both Brossoit and Talbot are coming from teams with better defence than the Leafs are likely to provide them with so there is a risk when it comes to trusting the numbers they’ve put up. Goaltending stats are largely team stats.
Anthony Stolarz, Alex Nedeljkovic, and Kaapo Kahkonen round out the list of the other lower cost gambles that seem to be available. If Toronto is hellbent on saving money in net to spend in other areas it seems like one of these netminders will be the option or if you want to reach for options, Chris Driedger is another name to consider.
The other lower cost goaltending gamble comes via trade and the wishful thinking that goaltenders like Anton Forsberg, Joonas Korpisalo, Cal Petersen, Phillipp Grubauer, or Darcy Kuemper. With salary retained or the opportunity to send unwanted contracts the other way, these goalies might be worthwhile second attempts at the Matt Murray trade under Kyle Dubas.
Brad Treliving might also have more faith in his former goaltender, Daniel Vladar, than a lot of others do and could be open to bringing him to Toronto to share the net with Woll.
The ideal target in trade situation might be Elvis Merzlikins, who has the best chance of the bunch to resurrect his career with a stronger team in front of him. The addition of Don Waddell to the Blue Jackets front office might eliminate the availability of Merzlikins and when you look at the number of teams chasing goaltenders around the league, it’s hard to imagine there is a deal to be had even when gambling that you find a goaltender good enough to not cost your team games.

Star power in net

If Brad Treliving’s time in Calgary is a sign of his intentions in Toronto he is going to look for a star goaltender option. Jacob Markstrom gave Brad Treliving a mixed bag of results but based on Markstrom’s time in Vancouver it was certainly a move intended to provide the Flames with a true No. 1 goaltender who was capable of stealing games for them. It seems reasonable that Treliving will attempt this again especially after having to rely on Martin Jones more than he was probably comfortable.
When you consider that the Bruins aren’t going to do the Leafs any favours in net, the list of options for Toronto is probably pretty short and consists of an older version of Jakob Markstrom, joining the Juuse Saros bidding war or believing that John Gibson is still an elite option despite years of evidence to the contrary.
While the price might be high on going this route it does seem considerably cheaper than going out and trying to land a number of marquee defencemen and hoping they pan out and reduce the need for a higher quality netminder. And at the end of the day having a goaltender that has a track record of coming up big than crossing your fingers and hoping that one of the cheaper options pans out. There likely isn’t going to be a huge price difference between a star and mid goaltender anyway other than what assets will be given up to bring one in.

Plan C

The Leafs are also likely to look at a third string option they don’t mind turning to. The Samsonov/Woll tandem certainly emphasized the necessity of someone like Martin Jones and even if previous seasons the Leafs were best off when they had guys like Michael Hutchinson and David Rittich they could turn to. And while there will be a lot of interest in seeing Dennis Hildeby in the NHL, the Maple Leafs would like to have control over the situation he plays in, not have it entirely born of necessity. The role seems like it would be Matt Murray’s as long as he wants it, but the draw of Kyle Dubas and Jon Elkin in Pittsburgh as well as it being a potentially welcoming fanbase for him, I wouldn’t rule out that he lands there instead.
The Leafs will have interesting options for this role too, including the potential return of Martin Jones.
Like most things Leafs related this offseason the goaltending situation wasn’t completely broken and as a result it is difficult to predict what Brad Treliving will do here. The Leafs need to find ways to be a better team and goaltending might not be the priority for that. It seems like a conversation between Brad Treliving, Craig Berube, and Curtis Sanford is in order to determine what the Leafs priorities are, what the play in front of the goaltender will look like, and then determine who is the best goaltender to play in that situation with the budget available. There isn’t an easy answer on who fits that situation other than Joseph Woll for at least part of it.

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