What comes next for Ilya Samsonov?

Photo credit:Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
6 months ago
What comes next for Ilya Samsonov? It’s more than just a cheeky title designed for you to reply with waivers, Robidas Island, the Coyotes or another equally clever response. It’s a fairly serious question that needs a response beyond playing Martin Jones as much as possible until Joseph Woll is ready to return. Although I wouldn’t doubt that is something the Leafs will look to do, and it is one of the benefits of having a third string goaltender who can handle an NHL starters workload. No, there are other things that need to be looked and we’ll explore those before we ultimately land back at the same place you started with when you gave that clever response to the title of this post.
The first thing that probably needs to be considered is that this is entirely about the short term. His collapse this season following a strong Leafs debut last year really confirms that the Leafs were right to take advantage of the RFA arbitration situation and go with a one year deal with Samsonov. Consistency needs to be part of what the Leafs next true starter provides, and Samsonov isn’t that. Woll, while looking like a quality goaltender has injury issues as well so really, we’re back to talking about who will be the Leafs 1A next year.
So back to if Ilya Samsonov is salvageable in the short term.
The wheels have come off for Samsonov before. His last season in Washington started off with two months of strong goaltending including a November with eight games and a .919 save percentage. The rest of the year involved sub .900 goaltender and the Capitals decided to move on from Ilya and the Leafs did their best last season to make that look like a mistake. Samsonov seemed to thrive when he was the 1B making a case for himself and as his workload shifted to more of a starter’s role either due to injuries or because his numbers warranted more starts, Samsonov struggled with that situation. He did great as a 1B playing for himself and this year the 1A role hasn’t agreed with him. Getting Samsonov back to the mindset that worked for him last season might be a challenge but perhaps it comes with the Leafs being perfectly frank with him and that he’s now playing to make a case to the rest of the league for next season that someone should sign him.
Samsonov going from an .882 HDSV% last season to a .778 HDSV% this year is one of the more notable numbers that stands out as the problem. Samsonov struggling with shots from the slots and the Leafs having a defence that can be quite generous with giving up those chances is a big problem. It was a big part of the undoing of Jack Campbell and it appears that Samsonov has been figured out in the same way. You can certainly put some struggles on the Leafs defence playing differently this year and not having the ideal personnel for the goaltender around this year, but when Woll and to some degree Jones have been able to get things done better with the same team playing in front of them there is no reason to tolerate Samsonov’s poor play.
The Leafs should definitely ease off Samsonov as much as they can for the foreseeable future. There might be some concerns that the real Martin Jones finally showed up in Buffalo during the third period and he somehow had a worse save percentage than Samsonov in relief but the situation hasn’t changed much. The Leafs need to see if Jones can give them close to average goaltending with a starters workload while they need to reboot Samsonov. There are only 3 back-to-back games between now and the All-Star break, that looks like the likely list of Samsonov starts while seeing what Jones can do.
Toronto could certainly go the curiosity route and give Dennis Hildeby a look if the Leafs think more drastic measures are required. If Toronto wants to attempt a short term AHL assignment for Samsonov similar to what the Oilers are attempting with Jack Campbell, Hildeby has been playing hockey that warrants opportunities as opposed to what Samsonov has been giving them. It’s just very debatable if it is too early for goaltender that might need more preparation before facing NHL shooters for the first time. The Leafs would need to waive Samsonov to get him to the AHL and Toronto would only get $1.15M of cap relief by demoting him. It’s also unlikely that he gets claimed on waivers and I don’t doubt the Leafs would be heartbroken if that happened either. The biggest risk with going this route is that when confidence and psychology seem s to be part of the issue, is a significant demotion going to help with any of that?
The Leafs could look for a trade but good luck on what they get back. Teams like Edmonton or Carolina might be desperate enough to try anything but far more likely is that if the Leafs are completely done with Samsonov they are paying someone to take him away.
When a goaltender is telling you that his struggles are with his head there should be a couple of realizations here. The first is that he’s a guy going through a tough time and jackasses like me writing about how bad his performance has been probably doesn’t help. Sorry, Ilya. The other part of that is that the Toronto market in win now mode probably isn’t the environment that is going to give him the time and space to get his head right. A change of scenery to a non-playoff team seems like the humane thing for Ilya and what allows the Leafs to explore goaltending options in a competitive trade market between now and the deadline.
What seems most likely is that the Leafs remain in a holding pattern until Joseph Woll is ready to return. At that time Toronto figures out which of Jones or Samsonov looks to be the most capable of sharing the net with Woll or if Toronto needs to go with a better option in season rather than wait for the summer. Nothing about Brad Treliving’s career makes him seem like he’s going to act fast or aggressively unless a deal falls into his lap.
Data sourced from Natural Stat Trick
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