Photo credit:© Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
History shows Ilya Samsonov should thrive while Joseph Woll is injured
By Alex Hobson2 months ago
The article isn’t as morbid as the title makes it sound, don’t worry.
The Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in a tough spot with their goaltending right now. Right as Joseph Woll was starting to pick up steam and cement himself as the team’s number-one goaltender, he suffered a high ankle sprain on a seemingly fluke play against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night. The injury leaves the Leafs with Ilya Samsonov, whose play has left lots to be desired so far this season, and Martin Jones, the not-so-proud owner of a .887 save percentage (sv%) for the Seattle Kraken last season.
Since Samsonov was expected to be the Leafs’ starter from the get-go this season, he’s going to be the focus of this article. Anything Jones can chip in from his end will be gravy, but the guy who stood tall for much of last season is the one they should be counting on to keep the momentum going. And, while lots are ready to throw in the towel with his lacklustre play to start the season, there’s reason to believe we’re going to see the best of Samsonov while his goaltending partner is on the mend rather than the worst.
First, let me disclose that while Samsonov’s shutout against the Nashville Predators last night was great, it’s not the reason I’m throwing this together. That said, it certainly helped both his case and mine. The Leafs needed a strong performance from the goaltender (so did Toronto sports fans as a whole…cough Shohei Ohtani cough), and while he didn’t see much action, he stopped all 18 shots he faced and left the ball in the hands of the forwards, who delivered on their end as well.
But, last night aside, I want to take things back to last season. October 2022, when nobody really knew what to expect from Samsonov. The majority of the goaltending concerns floated around Matt Murray, who was coming off a rough season with the Senators and infamously known for his durability issues, but Samsonov himself was a question mark. He too was coming off a rather uninspiring season with the Washington Capitals, and yet in some ways, he was expected to be the safety net should Murray struggle or get hurt.
It took only four days from the start of the NHL season for Murray’s injury concerns to come to life. Ahead of what would have been his first game against the Senators since they traded him, he tweaked his groin in practice. All of a sudden, Samsonov’s workload was about to take a giant leap forward. And guess what he did? He rose to the occasion. Between Oct 15, the day Murray got hurt, and Nov 15, the day he made his return, Samsonov put together a record of 5-2-0, complemented by a 2.27 goals-against average (GAA) and a save percentage to the tune of .920%.
Unfortunately for Samsonov, he suffered an injury of his own on Nov 5 that kept him out until Nov 30. In three games after returning, he stopped 80 of 81 shots in three straight games, including two shutouts for a torrid .988 sv%.
Things started to slip a little bit from there. Between Dec 17 and Jan 17, Samsonov struggled with Murray’s return to the crease. Not that the latter was perfect either, but the former really had a rough time with it, scraping together a .867 sv% and a 3.44 GAA. It was starting to look like maybe he had just caught fire with the surprise opportunity in net early on, and questions once again started to rise about the stability of the Leafs’ crease.
That is, until January 17, 2023.
Murray started a home game against the Florida Panthers and got absolutely annihilated in net. He allowed four goals on eight shots in the first 22 minutes of the game, forcing Sheldon Keefe to pull him in favour of Samsonov. The Leafs did a great job of tightening things up to take some pressure off of the new goalie, and his 11 saves on 11 shots for the remainder of the game helped the Leafs come away with a 5-4 overtime win.
Samsonov started the Leafs’ next four games and looked like his old self, winning three of four games and stopping 123 of 131 shots for a .939 sv% across those four games. And, right as Murray was about to make a redemption start against Ottawa on Jan 27, he was yanked last minute due to a lingering ankle issue. The Leafs determined during the all-star break that he would need some time to recover, and back to the IR he went.
Over that stretch of 15 games, starting when he came in relief of Murray on the 17th, and his last start before Murray returned on Mar 4, Samsonov held the Leafs above the water. He put together a record of 10-4-1 with a .916 sv% and a 2.45 GAA. It’s worth noting that it was during that time when Woll started to make some noise in the crease as well, but he wasn’t yet considered a threat to take Samsonov’s job. In fact, I’d say that threat didn’t really arise until the start of this season. Coincidentally, right when the Russian netminder started to struggle again.
Let’s not beat around the bush here – the Leafs are at a disadvantage without Woll. He’s been the considerably better goaltender to start the season, and to lose him right as he was starting to really pick up steam is a form of bad luck that only Toronto fans seem to get (if you ask them, anyway). But, just because Samsonov’s numbers aren’t good on paper right now, doesn’t mean he’s not capable of being the goaltender he was just last season.
Since he’s been with the Leafs, Samsonov has historically played much better while he’s had complete control of the crease. It was a hope this year that he and Woll could push each other and both thrive while sharing the workload, but some goaltenders perform better when they’re in a rhythm and don’t have to worry about anyone taking their job. He never had that fear when Erik Kallgren was backing him up early in the 2022-23 season, and didn’t really have it when Woll was behind him during Murray’s second injury. I can’t see things being much different with Martin Jones behind him.
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