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Samsonov, Woll or mystery box? Using the remaining games to determine the Maple Leafs playoff starter

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Photo credit:Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
22 days ago
Before Saturday night’s game against the Oilers, Sheldon Keefe stated that he had a plan for Joseph Woll and Ilya Samsonov to get an equal number of starts through the remaining 14 games. Sometimes it would be a straight-up rotation, but there was a possibility that we’d see a couple of starts in a row for the netminders as well to give them a small run without the other getting cold.
Those were Sheldon Keefe’s best-laid plans on Saturday night and the Leafs didn’t even make it through the full game before a scare with Ilya Samsonov called some of those plans into question and at least the immediate result has been a couple of starts in a row for Joseph Woll.
That begs the question, with 11 games left, what is the best approach that keeps the Leafs goaltenders from getting cold and has them in a strong competition for Game 1 against Boston or Florida?
It’s hard to think of a position in sports that is based on “what have you done for me lately?” more than NHL goaltenders. And when you look at it that way, Ilya Samsonov has been the guy for the Maple Leafs. His seven starts in March see him with a .915 save percentage and a 5-1-1 record. His .889 season save percentage is still heavily weighed down by his pre-reset numbers and Samsonov could be the Leafs’ hot hand, although a rough night against the Flyers and allowing a late comeback from the Hurricanes have opened the door for Woll to compete for the Game 1 starter role.
Samsonov has always benefited from a balanced workload and the more starts he sees in a row the bigger the issue he becomes. Even if he was the game-one starter, I would plan for the Leafs using Woll in the series, but this isn’t about the playoffs, yet. This is about how the starts should be split heading into the playoffs and Samsonov hasn’t claimed the net just yet.
Since Woll has returned from his injury he’s played in just six games and of those two have been great, and four have statistically been underwhelming, although you can make some excuses for him based on the team in front of him against Boston. Still, the key word there is Boston and if Woll isn’t getting it done against the Bruins, that is a bit of a concern as is the fact that hasn’t had a real run of games up until Carolina and New Jersey this week. Seeing what Woll can do with a stretch of games is as important as balancing Samsonov’s workload.
Woll’s 20 games this season (heading into Tuesday night) have left him with a .912 save percentage, which is encouraging, but when he’s been relied on when going for a run of starts his results have suffered as well. It might come down to demeanor and previous playoff results that make a case for Woll as the playoff starter but as rare as it is, I’d imagine Sheldon Keefe’s plans for the playoffs are to rotate his goaltenders unless one catches lightning in a bottle.
With 11 games left, there is a benefit in giving a bit more of a look to Woll than Samsonov.
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That brings us to the wild cards, Martin Jones and Matt Murray. We’ll start with Murray and say that at best he sees a late-season conditioning assignment to the Marlies as any action but at the same time, there is a tremendous benefit in having Matt Murray around Samsonov and Woll who has some pretty notable experience in being a young goaltender in a rotation who went on a run during the playoffs. The reality is that if the Leafs get to a point where they are considering using Murray this year, something has gone terribly wrong.
When it comes to Martin Jones I think there is some benefit in keeping him fresh. It could be as simple as putting him in for the third period of a one-sided game (either the Leafs winning or losing) and giving him a chance to face some pucks but there is also one game on the Leafs’ calendar that seems suited to playing him as the starter and that’s the game against the Panthers, the Leafs’ second last outing of the season.
Jones starting against the Panthers leaves Florida guessing a little bit more about how they look against either Samsonov or Woll and spares the Leafs goaltender for what will be a high-traffic night with Tkachuk, Bennett, Cousins, Lomberg, etc. in front of them. They’ll see plenty of that in the playoffs, why put them through it unnecessarily in a meaningless regular season game?
Jones is someone the Leafs may want to use and given that he’s only seen 3:39 minutes of ice time since February, finding a chance for him to come in cold as well as get one more proper start isn’t a bad thing either given that he’s got two young-ish goaltenders in front of him that have had their struggles that warrant a safety net. Interestingly enough, Jones is the Leafs goaltender with the most impressive run of games this season and could be the hot hand in the playoffs (although if you are to the point where you are testing your third-string goaltender as a starter you should probably be more focused on booking good tee times.)
Looking at the Leafs schedule, I’d break it down with six starts for Woll, four for Samsonov, and one for Martin Jones as follows:
Of course, that’s what I’d do. I don’t know to what extent Sheldon Keefe wants to rest Ilya Samsonov after Saturday’s “slight” injury against the Oilers. I’d imagine there will be some philosophical issues that come into play regarding whether Sheldon Keefe wants a rested Game 1 starter or wants to have had them in the most recent game. And it will come down to whether Sheldon Keefe looks at the recent games against Carolina and New Jersey as enough extra work for Woll that it can be a 50/50 split in the remaining games and an additional start on the calendar should bounce back over to Samsonov.
The main takeaway is that at the 71-game mark, the Leafs do not have a clear-cut playoff starter and in the wonky games of half efforts and load management that remain, establishing a goaltender that is 100% “the guy” is unlikely. Having everyone ready to go is the best course of action and that probably means more work for Woll, a bit more rest for Samsonov, and a couple of guest appearances for Jones.

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