Maple Leafs need to maintain a cautious optimism when it comes to Ilya Samsonov

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
9 months ago
It’s not the Leafs’ first rodeo when it comes to getting excited about a diamond-in-the-rough goaltender showing a bit of promise. Jack Campbell was solid before he fizzled. James Reimer did the same thing. And when it has come to prospects, Garrett Sparks also was the harbinger of false hope that likely leads to a “proceed with caution” mentality around Joseph Woll as well. Things always tend to look good for goaltenders until teams have a chance to study film on the goaltenders and how their team plays in front of them and then it is up to the goaltender to adapt. That’s why we see so many one hit wonders in net and that’s why Vegas is potentially in for a bad time with Adin Hill.
A goaltender with a .919 save percentage is pretty hard to ignore though, and when that goaltender is still only 26 and still in that age range when goaltenders are establishing that they are ready to be a full time starter, a netminder who has first round draft pedigree who hails from the world’s reigning top goaltender producing country warrants a bit of excitement. Although at the same time we’ll temper some expectations because this is still a goaltender we are talking about and even if Samsonov comes back as good as he was last season, there will still be some impact from changing the roster around him.
When looking at Samsonov’s Sv% it’s easy to see that last season in Toronto was both a career year and a career saving year. For a guy who took a contract to prove himself, he certainly stepped up and did that by not only putting up his best numbers and handling one of the biggest workloads of his career.
The curve in Samsonov’s career save percentages does fit with what I spoke about adaptation from the opposition. Samsonov came into Washington as a strong option as well and over time he became exposed as teams learned how to play against the combination of his style and the way the Capitals played in front of him. Toronto offered Ilya a fresh start in front of a good team and with a coach who set him up for success well.
The nice thing about Samsonov’s time in Toronto is that we can see that he was consistently good over the course of the season and did rebound late in the year when concerns were beginning to form about whether he was “the guy.” The playoffs for Samsonov, like most of the Leafs, was a mixed bag. To say he had a rocky start to them would be an understatement, but after that, there was really only one questionable game you could hang on Samsonov in the Tampa series. The Florida series was more of a disaster as the Panthers were very prepared for the Leafs and then Woll came in to close out the series and put up a valiant effort in the process that could lead to an interesting battle for time in the crease next season.
The injury story around Samsonov coupled with unpredictability in the playoffs is certainly why Ilya isn’t a no-brainer for the Leafs to look to as a long-term solution in net and in some ways, that is a blessing. I’ll credit Nick Richard with bringing it up in our discussions, but we’re certainly not the first to believe it and that’s goaltenders need to be looked at the same way you look at Running Backs in football. Most of them only have a short window of time that they can truly deliver with the performance you need from them and they can absolutely steal games and championships for you during that time. After that, well…the odds that you’ve found the next Barry Sanders or Henrik Lundqvist seem pretty unlikely and it’s time to cash out. Samsonov seems like he’s still worth exploring to see where he falls on the Jim Carey to Patrick Roy scale.
One of the things that should inspire some hope that Samsonov is that good is he was apparently challenged a bit more than previous years and rose to the occasion. Facing his highest totals of shot attempts against (CA/60), expected goals against (xGA/60), and high danger shot attempts against (HDCA/60), Samsonov managed career bests in goals against (GA/60), and high danger goals against (HDGA/60).
The underlying performance shows up in Samsonov’s GSAA/60 which dramatically spiked last season and put Samsonov in the top 10 goaltenders in the league in that category (9th) of netminders who played over 1000 minutes:
A few of the interesting takeaways here are that the inclusion of Kevin Lankinen on the list certainly points to a hot hand on a new team can achieve similar results over a shorter stretch compared to guys like Hellebuyck, Saros, and Sorokin who have established themselves at the top of the goaltending world. The strong team impact of the Bruins comes through here as well and it’s notable that Jeremy Swayman is the only netminder who saw fewer shots per 60 than Ilya Samsonov.
When it comes to Samsonov though, it’s interesting to see how his high danger numbers are a key driver for his success and after having Jack Campbell and those being his biggest determent, it’s a very welcome change and it’s what the Leafs have needed most out of the goaltenders in past years considering the tendency to pair them with a smaller, less physical blueline. One of the biggest changes that was seen in Samsonov in the playoffs was that his HDSV% dropped from .882 in season to .776. A smaller sample size to be sure and a number that could have skewed in a different direction with one or two additional saves, but it was the 6th lowest HDSV% of goaltenders in the playoffs with over 200 minutes played, and not surprisingly, Adin Hill led the playoffs in HDSV%, both pointing to why the stat matters and what was needed to be effective against the Florida Panthers.
To summarize, Ilya Samsonov has given a lot of reasons to be excited about him. As a 26 year old goaltender there is definitely the possibility of there still being better results to come. There are also issues. Workload and injury are near the top of the list, but repeatability of the season is certainly on the list as well. Plenty of goaltenders have shown they can have a good year, but doing twice or three times in a row is the challenge that most can’t rise to and is why the Leafs are likely not interested in giving Samsonov term.
The Leafs are also in a very unique situation that could work to their advantage and that is Samsonov’s upcoming arbitration hearing. It is very possible that the Leafs can get Samsonov at his cheapest price by going through the full arbitration process. The catch is that it will be a one-year deal which means Ilya can test the open market as a free agent next summer. It is also potentially walking him to free agency when the starter options as UFAs would essentially be Samsonov and Hellebuyck, and that seems to point to a lot of future leverage being handed over to Ilya. The one year deal is the best range of time for the Leafs to see whether Samsonov is for real, can handle more starters, and also find out what they truly have in Joseph Woll. It seems like the best option, but adding another expensive contract to next summer is something that I’m sure Brad Treliving would like to avoid.
There still isn’t enough history with Samsonov to want to commit long term to him, and arguably I don’t think you can make a case for wanting to commit more than four years to any goaltender in the NHL. There aren’t many examples of it not ending poorly and anything over three years with Samsonov seems like it has the potential for trouble.
Samsonov playing for a team that is trusting John Klingberg to defend him and has replaced Alex Kerfoot’s defensive zone abilities with Max Domi’s is a good test of whether Ilya is a for real or not. And to some extent with all goaltending numbers isolating the goaltender from the team is a challenge (see the numbers for Swayman and Ullmark above.) What we do know is that Samsonov looks like the best fit or at least the best available fit in the short term and barring an absolutely absurd arbitration ruling, he’s likely the guy the Leafs will be leaning on in net next season.
Data sourced from Natural Stat Trick.

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