Is there a path back to the NHL for Ilya Samsonov in Toronto?

Photo credit:Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
6 months ago
No one in recent memory has seen quite the fall from grace that Ilya Samsonov has.
This time last season, Samsonov was the bright spot in a Leafs crease that was full of uncertainty. He and Matt Murray entered the season sharing the net, and after the latter went down with an injury four days into the season, he grabbed hold of the starting job and never really lost his grip. Little did anyone know that four months from then, he would be the goaltender between the pipes when the Leafs broke a 19-year curse and won their first playoff round since 2004. 
Fast forward 365 days, and Samsonov is in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies after clearing waivers with no clear return date in mind. 
The former Washington Capitals first round pick entered the 2023-24 season in a similar position to last season, albeit a little more of an edge in his favour when it came to the starting job. After putting up a record of 27-10-5, a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.27 and a save percentage (SV%) of .919 along with being in net for that ever-so-coveted series win, he had a decent case to come in and snatch the number one job despite the intriguing numbers rookie Joseph Woll posted last year. 
To say it hasn’t played out in Samsonov’s favour would be a massive understatement. Three months into the season, he isn’t only posting the worst numbers of his career so far, he’s posting some of the worst numbers of all qualified goaltenders across the NHL. With 15 games under his belt, he’s got a record of 5-2-6 with a GAA of 3.94 and a SV% of .862. 
For context, Petr Mrazek finished his lone season with the Maple Leafs with a SV% of .884 back in 2021-22.
What makes this Samsonov situation so outrageous is that we’ve seen some absolutely disastrous stints of Leafs goaltending in recent years. Jack Campbell, despite posting Vezina-like numbers in the first two months of that 2021-22 season, couldn’t keep the puck out of the net for much of December until March of that year. We know what happened to Mrazek that same year. And somehow, the guy who helped them break a nearly 20-year long streak without playoff wins plummeted worse than anyone. 
Here’s where the situation gets really dicey for the Leafs. In the absence of Woll, who went down with a high ankle sprain in the first week of December, veteran goaltender Martin Jones has stepped up and done a fine job. While the 34-year-old’s sample size is pretty small, a 4-3-0 record complemented by a 2.73 GAA and a .915 SV% makes him look like Dominik Hasek considering what the Leafs have otherwise gotten this year. 
The Leafs got lucky in October after waiving Jones and having him successfully clear waivers. They would be foolish to assume they will have the same luck if they try to do it again. They aren’t the only team in the market for a goaltender, and despite Jones’ underwhelming individual numbers in 2022-23 with the Seattle Kraken, he did scrape together a 27-win season on an expansion team. Pair that with the fact that he’s making league minimum, I don’t see much of a chance that he makes it through waivers a second time. 
Typically when you see a goaltender go to the AHL to get their game back, it’s someone who’s locked up for a few years with their team (see Jack Campbell in Edmonton). If the Leafs had Samsonov under contract for multiple years and had more of a resume as a starting goaltender, I’d be all-in to the idea of letting him find his footing in the minors and eventually getting him back to the NHL. 
That said, he’s only on a one-year contract, and hasn’t inspired any confidence that he’ll find his game back if called upon. And we’re not just talking about playing better – the Leafs need him to be closer to what he was last season than what he’s been so far this year, which is a pretty tall order at this point in time. Getting his confidence back is the first step of that process, which is much, much easier said than done if you’re a goaltender playing in the Toronto market. At this point, it might just be easier to cut their losses with him and find him a fresh start with a new team. 
Samsonov doesn’t have any value right now, so they wouldn’t be able to get much for him, but freeing up his $3.5 million in cap space and salvaging a late-round pick would probably be a solid fit for both sides. He would get a fresh start in a market with less pressure and eyeballs in, and the Leafs would have some additional cap space with a more-than-capable backup goaltender in Jones to work with once Woll comes back. 
As it stands right now, there’s no plan for Samsonov to appear in any games for the Marlies yet. The Leafs plan to use their resources, both from a physical and a mental standpoint, to try and get his confidence back and figure out the root of his issues. Top goaltending prospect Dennis Hildeby is up with the big club right now and could make his NHL debut against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday, but as it stands right now, there’s no concrete plan for the next two games. 
From a fan standpoint, it’s disappointing to see the downward spiral Samsonov has taken, but at this point, there doesn’t seem to be much of an alternative aside from either leaving him in the AHL for the rest of the year or trading him. Winning a round last season doesn’t absolve them of pressure to succeed in the playoffs, and to do that, you need a goaltender you can rely on. As it stands, it’s too much of a risk to not only bank on Jones clearing waivers, but bank on Samsonov getting his game back to a point he and the team are both comfortable with. The pressure isn’t going to get any easier and the stakes aren’t going to get any lower. 
The Leafs have been reported to be “unenthusiastic” to make a trade between the pipes, which makes sense – Woll has performed well more often than not in 2023-24 and Jones has proven in his career that he’s a reliable backup goaltender who can be called upon to start a stretch of games if needed. They should be looking to use their assets on an upgrade defensively, if anything. It’s been a long season without much smile for Samsonov, and whether it’s in Toronto or somewhere else, hopefully he can rediscover his game at some point.

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