Who should start Game 1 for the Leafs between Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll?

Photo credit:Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
9 days ago
After a world of ups and a world of downs, we’ve officially reached the end of the 2023-24 Toronto Maple Leafs season. They improved in some areas from last year’s team and regressed in others, but ultimately, their season performance as a whole will be judged based on what they accomplish over the next two weeks (or, ideally, the next two months). There have been a number of burning questions asked around the team going into the eighth playoffs in the Auston Matthews era, but arguably none more prevalent than the one surrounding the Game 1 starter.
Last year, starting Ilya Samsonov in Game 1 was a no-brainer. He had a breakout season with the Leafs and finished top-10 in both goals-against average (GAA) and save percentage (SV%) among qualified goaltenders in the league, and considering his competition were the inconsistent, injury-riddled Matt Murray and the inexperienced Joseph Woll, starting Samsonov was the way to go even if he didn’t have the season he did. The decision would ultimately pay off for them – even if his stats in Round 1 weren’t anything to write home about on paper, he was the goalie who backstopped them to their first series win since 2004, something no Leaf goalie for the past 19 years was able to say. His playoff run was unfortunately cut short following an injury in Game 3 of the second round against the Florida Panthers, putting Woll in the unfortunate position of having to keep the Leafs afloat. Woll may have been in net when they were eliminated, but in fairness, that series felt like it was over before it even started.
This year, it’s not so simple. There have been stretches where they’ve had to ride Samsonov, Woll and even Martin Jones at times. If you’ve been paying attention to the Leafs at all this year, I don’t need to remind you about first-half Samsonov, who couldn’t stop a beach ball and ended up being waived in January in an effort to get him away from the team to clear his head. The move ultimately worked out for him in the end, playing to the tune of an 18-5-2 record with a 2.70 GAA and a .904 SV% after returning to the NHL. It’s also worth noting that his last two games of the season, with six and five goals allowed respectively, completely tarnished his SV% for the season, knocking it down by nine points. Woll, who missed a large chunk of the season due to a high-ankle sprain, finished the season with a record of 12-11-1, a 2.94 GAA and a .907 SV%. These numbers aren’t terrible for a backup goaltender, but probably not what you want from a guy expected to take you on a playoff run. Still, Samsonov’s season was up and down enough that he shouldn’t have the Game 1 start locked up like last year.
With that being said, let’s examine the case for both goaltenders and go over some pros and cons of each of them starting Game 1 against an old playoff foe in the Boston Bruins.

Ilya Samsonov

When Samsonov, who was 25 at the time, wasn’t tendered a contract by the Washington Capitals in the 2022 offseason, it had to have been a little bit of a slap in the face. Sure, the Russian netminder’s numbers weren’t overly inspiring over the three years he was with the team, but still – this is a guy who was a first-round pick in 2015, which has historically been a rarity for goaltenders, and still had room to grow and develop. Either way, they decided it was time to cut ties, and he wound up betting on himself with a one-year, $1.8 million contract in Toronto. The deal looked like the steal of the summer by the end of the year – Samsonov was consistent for the Leafs and only really had one bad stretch, going from the end of 2022 into the new year, and again, he’s able to say that he helped the Toronto Maple Leafs win a playoff round for the first time in 19 years, which is a unique form of street cred that nobody else was able to claim in that period.
That said, we’re talking about this season, not last season. If you were to ask any Leaf fan who they wanted to see between the pipes back in December, the knockout answer would have been Woll. His .862 SV% between the first game of the season and December 29, the last game before he was sent to the AHL, was the worst of any goaltender in the league, and it was at a point where the team had to score four or five goals during his starts to even give them a chance. This is the concerning, yet intriguing part of going with Samsonov in Game 1. Starting the series off against Boston on a high note is going to be of key importance, especially on the road, and while he boasts the ability to steal a game and bail his team out, he’s also shown the ability to fall apart early and quickly. Hell, that’s exactly what happened in Game 1 last year. The Tampa Bay Lightning came out and scored seven goals, leaving Samsonov with a putrid .793 SV% to start the series. Sure, the Leafs were able to rebound and get out of the first round, but it’s not an ideal way to kick things off, and certainly wouldn’t be ideal against a team that’s notorious for locking things up when they get a lead.
Either way, Samsonov’s 18-4-1 stretch following his return to the NHL is more than Woll or Jones have provided with the Leafs, and give him a compelling case to grace the crease on Saturday.

Joseph Woll

While he didn’t start the series, Woll had to come out of the bullpen in both Game 1 of the first round last season as well as Games 3-5 of the second round, after Samsonov got hurt. When he was called upon, I would say he did a fine job. He did allow three goals after coming into Game 3 in relief, but he stood tall in Games 4 and 5, dropping a .960 and a .930 SV% respectively. As I said earlier, the Leafs were handled by the Panthers pretty easily, so any criticism of Woll’s game should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Numbers like the ones he provided in the games he started are more than what his team could have asked for, but the team in question was out-muscled, outplayed, and out-classed in just about every way. Hard to ask your goaltender to steal a series when this is the case, although it’s been done in the past.
The main thing Woll has going for him in a case to start playoff games for the Leafs is his mental strength. This isn’t supposed to be a knock on Samsonov at all – being a starting goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs can mean you’re either a superstar or public enemy number one. It’s not an easy gig. After last season ended, it would have been incredibly easy for Woll to slip into a dejected state, read all the articles from the media talking about how the breaking of the curse was all for nothing, and spend the summer feeling bad about himself. What did he do instead? He turned off his phone and went on a solo hiking trip in Europe.
No, I’m not saying give Woll the net for Game 1 because he enjoys a hike through France and Switzerland. Still, mental strength and the ability to put a bad game behind you is something that’s arguably more valuable than technical skill in the playoffs. Considering the state of the team right now, they can’t afford to let the bad games of yesterday seep into tomorrow.

The Final Verdict

Well, MY final verdict anyway. We’ve gone over the pros and cons that both goaltenders carry and with all the evidence presented, Ilya Samsonov is my Game 1 starter. I don’t think it’s fair to judge his final two games of the season while ignoring his previous 23 leading up to that, and simultaneously, I think he’s a different goaltender now than he was before he went down to the AHL, and considering what he did last season, I think he’s earned the right to start Game 1. That being said, if things go south, I think the leash has to be short. He’s earned the Game 1 start, but he hasn’t earned the right to take the entire series. If he has a bad game, I think you go to Woll in Game 2, depending on the severity of it.
Either way, the Leafs are in for a wild ride against Boston, and they’re going to need one of their goaltenders to step up if they want to make it out of the first round two years in a row.

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