Photo credit:Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Woll’s departure is going to expose the Maple Leafs’ warts
By Jon Steitzer2 months ago
The Maple Leafs have at best been a mixed bag this season. There are some real high notes, Joseph Woll was certainly one of them, along with the play of Nick Robertson, Matthew Knies, and William Nylander. There have also been some pretty big concerns like the depleted blueline, the general lack of team defence, and inconsistent play from their stars right down to whatever you want to say Ryan Reaves’ role is. Joseph Woll masked a lot of the Leafs issues and his 8-5-1 record with .916 save percentage is certainly a testament to that.
Joseph Woll’s career to date pointed to high probability that there was going to be a point in the season where he was going to be down for a stint with an injury. Last year’s 33 games in the AHL/NHL with postseason games included is the most that Woll has played in a professional season in his career and given the short schedules of NCAA hockey, you’d have to go back to before Woll’s USNTDP days to find a time, if ever, that he exceeded 40 games in a year. The combination of injury history and increased workload was always going to be a challenge and the Leafs might have been flying too close to the sun by giving him a fifth start in a row, something that seemed necessary due to Ilya Samsonov’s illness.
For whatever length of time that Woll is out it could be looked at as a test for the Maple Leafs.
It’s a test for GM Brad Treliving to see if he can find defensive help swiftly to ease the burden on Ilya Samsonov and Martin Jones who don’t look capable of handling the Leafs play to same degree that Woll has.
It’s certainly a test for those two goaltenders as well. Ilya Samsonov was being given the luxury of time to sort out what has been holding him back this season but now he needs to own the Leafs crease as soon as he is healthy enough to do so and make a case to Sheldon Keefe to not immediately hand the starters job back to Woll upon his return. Samsonov was a .905 goaltender in November and that’s what his career really points to him being. It would be nice to see 2022-23 regular season Samsonov show up but anything resembling consistency is a good start.
As for Martin Jones, this seems like this is it for him and the NHL. He needs to get it right without hesitation and at least look like a serviceable backup if his career will continue. In short relief last night, he faced far more shots than he should have in 10 minutes of work, and that .900 save percentage really is the target for him going forward. It at least gives the chance to win the way they are designed to play.
That is the other piece, and it is the Leafs offensive stars can no longer take nights off. Every night is a shootout, and the plan has to be “how to win 5-4.” We could pretend that the Leafs will figure out defensive play, but the reality is that Alex Kerfoot, Pierre Engvall, Ondrej Kase, Noel Acciari, and Ryan O’Reilly aren’t walking through that locker room door, and the Max Domi, Tyler Bertuzzi, Nick Robertson, and (sigh) Ryan Reaves era says that team defence is not going to be a strength, especially when Simon Benoit is having to play in top four situations some nights.
The Leafs blueline, well, it’s hard to put any more pressure on them. It’s honestly not their fault. They are suffering through Timothy Liljegren’s injury, they had to suffer through when John Klingberg was healthy, and all the while it was painfully clear that they’ve needed at least one more high-end option. They will be leaned upon heavily to bail out the Leafs in Woll’s absence but in reality, there is only so much this group can do.
That brings us to Sheldon Keefe, and it will be interesting to see how he manages the team through this. If there was a time to make a case that he is the right guy behind the bench, it’s now. If it is true that save percentage dictates who wins the Jack Adams, and that bad goaltending is what gets you fired (see: Jay Woodcroft and Jack Campbell) then Sheldon Keefe should be extremely motivated to find a way of weathering this storm.
Finally, there is some opportunity in all of this as well and depending on the length of Woll’s absence, it could be a nice opportunity to get a first look at Dennis Hildeby in a Leafs uniform. Hildeby is still young, and his North American goaltending experience is limited to just 11 games, but with his .925 save percentage this season and GAA under 2, there should be at least a sense of curiosity about testing the goaltender of tomorrow today.
This post has certainly been written in an “expecting the worst” tone and given that Joseph Woll probably hasn’t received his test results back yet, it’s a bit premature. That said, you need to plan for the worst and hopefully the Leafs are hard at work identifying how they need to adapt to their most critical absence yet.
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