Playoffs could be make-it or break-it for Ilya Samsonov’s future with the Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo credit:Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Steven Ellis
7 days ago
If there’s anyone who needs to prove themselves during the Toronto Maple Leafs’ playoff series against the Boston Bruins, it’s goaltender Ilya Samsonov.
It’s been a roller coaster of a season for No. 35. From starting the season at No. 1 to getting sent to the Toronto Marlies before Christmas, just about anything that could have happened to Samsonov this year DID happen.
The 27-year-old was already on a one-year “prove it” deal with the Leafs this year. He had a solid first season with the club last year, sharing the net with Matt Murray and Joseph Woll. He had his shining moments in the playoffs, although his overall numbers looked ugly and he got hurt in the second round against Florida. At a team-friendly $3.55 million cap hit this year, Samsonov had an opportunity to prove he can be the team’s long-term answer in net – something that could finally end a revolving door of netminders.
Samsonov’s surface-level stats will give you the heebie jeebies. He has a .890 save percentage and a 3.13 GAA, yet he has built up a 23-7-8 record. While you can’t blame him solely for all the goals against, he allowed four or more goals on 15 separate occasions. He boasts a 5-4-6 record in those games, but nine of them came against teams that missed out on the playoffs. Like, seriously, those two 6-5 overtime losses against Columbus in January put him at the absolute bottom of the barrel, statistically and mentally.
Samsonov needed that time away from the big club to refocus, and that’s what he did. He still had his bumpy moments, especially late in the season, but Samsonov had a .919 SV% and 2.62 goals saved above average at 5-on-5 in his final 21 games after the NHL All-Star Game. Contrast that to his first 19 starts, where he had a .895 SV% and -7.06 GSAA – putting him 60th out of 64 goalies with at least 10 games played.
So yeah, he got better. Enough to instill confidence heading into a playoff series against the best goalie duo in the league, though? It doesn’t seem like it.
Looking beyond the numbers, you still saw a totally different Samsonov in the second half. He was confident, smiling and his teammates were rallying around him. All three of Toronto’s goalies struggled at points this year, but Samsonov’s was more front and centre given his status as the team’s top dog. It’s up to Treliving and staff to decide whether or not they believe he can bounce back and keep Toronto in Stanley Cup contention next year.
But that’s where things get tricky: the goalie market looks dire this summer.
Only one UFA goalie played more than Samsonov’s 40 this year – 36-year-old Cam Talbot, who played 54 games. Alex Nedeljkovic could be a target, but it seems unlikely the Pens would want to move on from him – and for how important he was down the stretch, his numbers weren’t great, either. Kaapo Kahkonen, Scott Wedgewood, Casey DeSmith, Anthony Stolarz and James Reimer are some of the others on the market, so we’re not talking starter caliber here.
Could the Leafs take to the trade market? Sure. But someone like Jacob Markstrom or Juuse Saros is going to cost a pretty penny. Ideally, you’d just figure it out from within. AFPAnalytics, a consulting firm that deals with player valuations, projected Samsonov to have a UFA value of $3.257 million over two years back in late January. A lot has changed for him since then on the performance front, but it feels like a generally fair price for what the Leafs know he’s capable of.
But given Toronto’s contention window? They’re not going to want to just wait and see if he’s the answer. They need a reason to believe. And a big showing against Boston – who has Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman at their disposal – could be the difference.
Goaltending has rarely hurt this team in the playoffs. Frederik Andersen could never make it out of the first round, but the team in front of him was generally a mess. The same goes for Jack Campbell, too. Samsonov led Toronto to its first series victory since Matthew Knies was just a year and a half old, but the Leafs, as a whole, looked more cohesive than ever before.
Even if the Leafs end up losing again to Boston, Samsonov has a chance to prove he’s the guy. And even then, Samsonov could look great and still elect to test the open market. But he seems to like the city, like his teammates and everything surrounding the club. If Samsonov wants to be here, and he’s a right fit, they’ll make it work. But it seems unlikely the team will commit long-term to him given his shaky play the past two years.
Maybe he comes in cheap, and the Leafs will roll with a 1A/1B of Samsonov and Woll next year. But frankly, the cost isn’t as important right now as the feeling of whether or not he’s the right man for the job. There has never been more pressure on Samsonov to perform, especially as many think Toronto can finally beat the Bruins in the playoffs for the first time since the late 1950s – before even Mark Giordano was born.
Let’s see if he makes the case to stick around.


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