Ilya Samsonov is healthy, happy and ready for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ starting job
Photo credit:Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff
By Steven Ellis2 months ago
“First of all, I’m just so happy to be here.”
Ilya Samsonov was all smiles to kick off training camp on Monday. And for good reason: for the first time in his career, he’s a clear No. 1 goaltender on a contending team. The Toronto Maple Leafs took a chance on him a year ago, and he’s hoping a good season can help him find a bit of sustainability.
It’s been a rocky road for Samsonov, who, after getting selected 22nd overall in 2015 – and instantly becoming one of the top goalie prospects in the game – struggled to find his mojo with Washington. The team elected to not even give him a qualifying offer last summer, allowing him to sign a one-year “prove it” deal with the Leafs.
It started strong, stealing the No. 1 spot away from Matt Murray after the two-time Stanley Cup champion went down with an injury. But Samsonov dealt with his issues, missing 12 games due to a knee injury and eventually ending his season with an upper-body injury in the postseason.
But Samsonov is healthy again. He’s also sitting on another one-year deal – and he hopes to prove he can be the long-term starting goalie in Toronto.
“I feel more comfortable right now, better shape a little bit,” Samsonov said Thursday at the Ford Performance Centre following the first day of camp. “I’m so excited to be here. One more year with an excellent team, excellent teammates. I’m happy to see everybody.”
Finding consistent, stable goaltending has been a challenge for the Maple Leafs since the days of Ed Belfour. But Samsonov’s emergence last year – including a first half that saw him among the top 10 in most notable advanced goalie stats – gave the fanbase some hope. He’ll have a decent challenge from youngster Joseph Woll this year, but it’s still Samsonov’s job to lose.
Samsonov finished his first year with the Leafs by posting a 27-10-5 record with four shutouts and a .919 save percentage. He had an up-and-down playoff series, but his performance in Game 6 against Tampa Bay was easily one of the best of his tenure with the Leafs. According to Evolving-Hockey, Samsonov had a 16.22 goals-saved above average and 21.24 goals-saved above expected, both good for 10th among all NHLers. His 4.8 wins-above replacement was also good for 10th, putting him among the league’s best goalies. The catch? Only Minnesota’s Filip Gustavsson played fewer games (39) than Samsonov (42), but you can’t take away what he did.
Samsonov’s parents live close by now, which will help him find a sense of familiarity as he looks to stay relaxed. It’s no easy task being the No. 1 in one in Canada’s biggest sports market, and with another short deal, he knows he needs to impress. He told reporters he’s doing yoga to help him stay in better shape, especially after shoulder injuries last year. He’s not holding any ill will after dealing with his arbitration hearing that saw the Leafs targeting a deal at $2.4 million – just under half of what Samsonov’s camp wanted at $4.9 million.
If healthy, he should have no issue playing over 50 games for the first time in his career. Many think Woll could steal even more away from Samsonov, but it’s in No. 35’s court now. Samsonov knows the pressure ahead of him and didn’t let it bother him last year.
It’s up to Samsonov to prove he’s the real deal now.
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