Samsonov mentally prepared to be Maple Leafs starter

Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Justin Walters
1 year ago
When the Washington Capitals decided not to tender a qualifying offer to Ilya Samsonov this past summer, you could argue several factors played into their decision. First, his numbers weren’t great last season (primarily in the second half), posting a .896 save percentage in 44 games, 39 of which were starts. He had long struggled to recapture the brilliance from his rookie season in 2019-20, where he posted a .913 in 26 appearances, but last season was a new low for Samsonov.
Then there were also some off-ice concerns of immaturity. The Capitals had suspended Samsonov in May 2021 for being late to a team function, and just a few months earlier was one of four players on the team to be suspended by the NHL for breaking Covid-19 protocols.
Still, the Maple Leafs, in search of a backup to newly acquired goaltender Matt Murray, decided to give him a chance on a one-year, $1.8 million contract. Toronto was getting a 25-year-old with question marks but a ton of upside, and for Samsonov, a chance to prove he’s still a valuable asset to an organization on and off the ice.
So far, both parties must be thrilled with the results.
On the ice, Samsonov has been fantastic for the Maple Leafs. The plan was always for him to start the second game of the season versus the Capitals, and he stopped 24 of 26 shots in that contest to defeat the team that essentially gave up on him just a few months prior. Then, due to a sudden adductor injury to Matt Murray, he became the team’s starting netminder just days into the season.
With wins last Saturday against the Ottawa Senators and Thursday against the Dallas Stars, Samsonov begins his tenure with the Maple 3-0 with a .927 save percentage and a 1.96 goals-against average. He’s been in the net for every Maple Leafs victory yet, and Toronto fans are beginning to trust him to give the team every chance to win when he’s called upon to start. Keefe has also been impressed with his new netminder’s commitment off the ice.
“He’s done his part in terms of listening, being accepting of the guidance and the work that he’s been asked to do, and so far the results have been good.”
Whenever a player comes to Toronto, you hear about whether he can handle the media attention that comes with being an athlete in this market. The highs, and the lows, will all be highly analyzed by media outlets all over the city. Some can deal with it just fine, while others seem to let it get to them, especially when things aren’t going great. So far, they have for Samsonov, but if he does hit a rough patch sometime this season, the media might not be an area of concern.
By now, surely you know that the Maple Leafs were able to get “The Rock” to attend their home opener against Montreal and even brought him out to hype up the crowd. Aside from him getting the chant wrong and Leafs Nation going with it, it was clear that the players on the ice were unaware of him making an appearance. Matthews and others post-game shared how surprised they were to discover he was at the game, while Samsonov claimed he doesn’t even know who “The Rock” is!
Now, does that seem like someone who spends a lot of time on social media? No, it doesn’t, because it sometimes seems like “The Rock” is everywhere doing everything possible, all the time. He’s easily one of the most famous people on the planet right now, and if it’s true, it’s pretty wild that Samsonov didn’t even know who was making all of Scotiabank Arena chant “Let’s Go Leafs, Let’s Go Leafs.”
Or maybe Samsonov is maturing into a professional athlete ready to take the next step in his career, not bothered by what others say about him. He seems genuinely thrilled about this opportunity, and management believes he’s taking this very seriously. Maybe the Maple Leafs had lengthy discussions with him heading into the season about the professionalism and work ethic needed to succeed here. Or, it could have been the Capitals not giving him a qualifying offer that was the real wake-up call for him.
Either way, this shows all the signs of a great partnership early in the season. Still, Samsonov seems to understand this is a golden opportunity for him to establish himself as the Maple Leafs starting goaltender moving forward, and Keefe believes the former 1st round pick is mentally ready for the challenge.
“He is on a bit of a mission this season. Now the door is really open for him.”
Statistics from hockey-reference.com

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