Maple Leafs should leave the goaltending battle open

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
6 months ago
Goaltending has been a polarizing topic around the Toronto Maple Leafs for as long as I can remember. Ever since the days of the stability that guys like Felix Potvin, Curtis Joseph, and Ed Belfour brought ended, there’s been a nonstop revolving door of goaltenders who are expected to be “the guy”. First it was Andrew Raycroft, then it was Vesa Toskala, then the tandem of J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson, with a subsequent merry-go-round of characters leading us to the current day tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll.
Samsonov was arguably the biggest pleasant surprise of the 2022-23 season. Former general manager Kyle Dubas took a huge gamble on his goaltending situation, pairing the unproven Russian with the injury-riddled and inconsistent Matt Murray. While Murray’s season went about as expected, Samsonov had a breakout, putting up a record of 27-10-5 with a save percentage (SV%) of .919 and a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.33. He was also the one between the pipes when the Leafs broke the curse, advancing to the second round for the first time in 19 years.
The former Washington Capitals first round pick earned himself both another season to show the Maple Leafs he’s the real deal, and a little raise in the process. And heading into this season, he also earned the right to begin the year as their starting goaltender and get the first look between the pipes on opening night. Granted, that doesn’t mean they should keep it this way.
Another surprising development that came to fruition last season was the emergence of 2016 third-round pick Joseph Woll. With Murray struggling to stay healthy and Erik Kallgren having a tough start to the season as the designated third goalie, Woll got more looks in the NHL than he probably expected to. His stellar AHL performance earned him the shot, posting Vezina numbers in the minors with a record of 16-4-1, a .927 SV%, and a 2.37 GAA. 
The NHL isn’t the same as the AHL, and in Woll’s case, he actually fared even better against tougher competition, with a GAA of 2.16 and a SV% of .932 to complement his 6-1-0 record. The 25 year-old also had to come out of the bullpen for Samsonov in the playoffs after the latter was injured, and held his own with a .915 SV% and a 2.43 GAA. 
On the basis of NHL experience and sample size, Samsonov has no doubt earned the right to get the first look at the starting goaltender this season. But in terms of committing the season to one guy, the Leafs should be approaching it the same way as they did last year – running with the hot hand. While Woll is still as unproven as it gets in terms of his body of work, his performance in 2022-23 has earned him a proper look between the pipes. To me, it wouldn’t make sense for the Leafs to look at what he did last year and not see if he can keep it up to some effect. 
Not only does Woll deserve some extra starts because of what he did last season, healthy competition is never a bad thing between the pipes. While Woll and Samsonov are both trying to outplay each other, they’re still teammates working towards the ultimate goal of team success. Though it may not be good for Samsonov individually if Woll starts to heat up and vice versa, I’d like to believe both goaltenders prioritize team success over individual success.
Woll is going to get his first start of the season when the Maple Leafs host the Chicago Blackhawks tonight. It comes after a rough first couple of games for Samsonov, where he allowed nine goals through his first six periods of the season. Sheldon Keefe was right to go back to him on Saturday night, but with another less-than-stellar performance, Woll’s earned a look today. 
If he heats up and goes on a little bit of a run, he should start getting the bulk of the starts. If he doesn’t, they should continue rotating the goaltenders. Samsonov has shown that he’s got the ability to be a top end starter when he’s on, but the Maple Leafs can’t shoehorn him back into another performance like that. 
What matters more than anything this season is team success, and with two capable goaltenders in the mix, the Leafs should be using their resources appropriately and letting them battle for the starting job. The obvious end goal is for one of them to emerge as “the guy”, the one who the team can turn to in an important game without a shred of doubt or apprehensiveness. While Samsonov has the edge towards being that guy right now, the Leafs should be letting them battle it out themselves.

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