The waiver wire: The secret motivator of the Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
1 month ago
Look at the Toronto Maple Leafs of 2023-24 and compare them to other Leaf teams from recent years. You’re without a doubt going to find more similarities than differences, but there are a couple of things that set them apart. Arguably the biggest one isn’t even related to anything on the ice, and that would be the use and subsequent luck of the waiver wire. 
My colleague Vicken Polatian wrote an article a month ago detailing the newfound wave of good fortune the Leafs have had this season in comparison to years past, and there’s legitimate proof of a change for the better. At this point in the season, the Leafs have placed eight players on waivers, with all of them having cleared. If you look at the record of Leaf players trying to go through waivers before this season, it’s not a pretty picture.
In the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, the Leafs lost a number of players to waivers including Jimmy Vesey and Travis Boyd, both of whom ended up with the Vancouver Canucks. The following year, they lost Adam Brooks, Michael Amadio, and Ryan Dzingel all to the waiver wire. They even lost Harri Sateri to the Arizona Coyotes, a goaltender they signed out of the KHL mid-season to address their ailing situation in net between Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek. It got to the point where then-general manager Kyle Dubas made a point of calling out their horrendous luck to the media. Whether you think the sudden turn in luck is related to the GM change, decide for yourself. But, it’s interesting to think about nonetheless.
Sure, none of these names seem like deal breakers, but you’re about to see why the process of simply clearing waivers can be so important. Let’s take things back to right before the season started. The Leafs placed six players on waivers, all of whom cleared. 
Kyle Clifford and Dylan Gambrell don’t really bat an eye here. AHL depth, wouldn’t have been the end of the world. The same could be said for Max Lajoie, although he’s had to step in and play a couple of games in the wake of an ailing defensive corps early in the year. Then we get to William Lagesson, who’s stepped in on a number of occasions and provided them with a sturdy, physical bottom-pair defenceman. 
Then there’s Martin Jones, who didn’t make his Leafs debut until December, but slid between the pipes when Joseph Woll was injured and Ilya Samsonov (who we’ll get to in a second) couldn’t stop a puck to save his life. Jones piled a record of 8-4-1 with a save percentage of .924 and a goals-against average of 2.30 from the day of Woll’s injury to the day Samsonov returned to the NHL. And, where do you even start with Simon Benoit? This guy started as the 9th defenceman on the depth chart. It took several injuries to get him into the lineup, but he called his shot and made it happen. Now, he’s one-half of the team’s top shutdown pairing and a fan favourite all in one. Where would the defensive corps be right now had he been claimed on waivers?
In recent weeks, Samsonov has returned to fine form for the Maple Leafs, just in time for when Jones started to slip under his unforeseen workload. The former Washington Capitals first-rounder was returning from a waivers stint of his own, and he, too, cleared. In reality, it was hard to see a scenario where a team would claim a goaltender who, at the time, had the worst numbers in the league and carried a price tag of $3.5 million. But either way, there was a time when the Leafs could send a used jockstrap through waivers and some team probably would have claimed it, so there’s still an element of fortune involved. 
Since Samsonov’s waivers run and subsequent stint with the Toronto Marlies, he has a record of 7-2-0 with a 2.10 GAA and a .916 SV%. Auston Matthews and Bobby McMann have rightfully received much of the spotlight when it comes to the Leafs’ recent hot streak, but it’s hard to imagine the Leafs would be thriving the way they are right now without the services of Samsonov. Imagine if he had been claimed on waivers and they were forced to use Jones this entire time? Instead, the trip to the Marlies seems to have done wonders for his confidence, which has a domino effect on the team. 
And since we just mentioned him, let’s close things out with a little Bobby McMann appreciation. He was the seventh of eight players to be placed on waivers by the team, and clear. He was sent through the wire days before the NHL season started, and it took him a little bit to start getting some regular reps with the Leafs. The 27-year-old didn’t make his debut with the team until November 11, and didn’t get much ice time beyond the fourth line until recently. In the past week alone, he’s scored six goals in four games including his first NHL hat trick. He was rewarded for his performance with a promotion to John Tavares’ wing alongside Nick Robertson and now looks like somebody who might deter the Leafs away from trading for a forward. 
Not only have the Leafs had far better luck with the waiver wire this season, but it seems like it’s been a positive factor for the players who have gone through it. Benoit worked his way from the bottom to become a regular contributing defenceman for the Leafs, Samsonov got his mental game back and looks like the guy the Leafs got last season, and McMann is pulling ahead of his fellow depth forwards and giving his team another power forward option up the left side. 
Sure, the waiver wire isn’t directly to thank for this, but now, it’s hard to foresee a situation where Treliving even considers placing them on waivers again. Some players take it as a demotion, others use it as fuel to work harder for what they want, and things tend to pay off in the end for players who choose the latter path. Depth is always cited as an important ingredient to a contender, and the lack of opposing waiver claims has rendered this notion all too true for the Leafs.

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