Ilya Samsonov has performed well in his early career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and there are quite a few similarities to him and former Leaf Jack Campbell.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs acquired Ilya Samsonov this off-season, signing him to a one-year deal at $1.8 million as an unrestricted free agent, it was largely expected that he would step in as the team’s backup goaltender behind two-time Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray. His lower salary and shorter term suggested that he was on a ‘prove it’ type of deal, with his status as an RFA at the end of it allowing the team control over their future between the pipes if he showed flashes of his early NHL career.
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Having a good backup is crucial to any contending team in the NHL, with the very real possibility of having to rely on them for longer stretches than anticipated when starters suffer freak injuries. In the case of the Leafs, however, Murray had known issues with his health over the past few seasons and there was always a genuine concern that he would not be able to suit up for as many games as the team would ideally like from him. This is such a situation that the team is going through already, with Murray currently on LTIR and Samsonov thrust into playing far more than previously expected.
Samsonov, however, has flourished in the early stages of his career with the Leafs and the larger responsibility is something that he appears to be handling exceptionally well, even when the team in front of him is not performing to their expected standard. Through his first five games with the Leafs, Samsonov sports a 4-1-0 record with a goals against average of just 2.01 and a truly impressive save percentage of .932. What’s even more impressive is that all five of his starts have been classified as Quality Starts, which is where the goalie’s save percentage is above his season average.
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The 26-year-old Russian is also spoken highly of by teammates for his overall demeanour and his straight-to-the-point comments in pre or post-game interviews have endeared him to the fanbase early on. All of this, however, feels eerily similar to former Leafs backup-turned-starter Jack Campbell.
Campbell was initially acquired from the Los Angeles Kings as cover for the team’s then-entrenched starter Frederik Andersen. Andersen had been excellent through his tenure with the Leafs, but the team saw the value of a good backup, especially with health concerns beginning to creep in. Fast forward a season and Campbell was thrust into being the team’s starter after Andersen’s health kept him sidelined much more than was expected or even hoped.
The former first round draft pick performed well in his 22 games during the Covid-shortened 2021 season, with his genuine likeability making the fans fall in love with him while his efforts on the ice saw him demonstrate what he could be for the team if required through longer stretches, with good numbers (2.15 GAA, .921 Sv%) along the way. By season’s end, the Toronto Maple Leafs had seen enough of Campbell and kept him on as the starter through the 2021-22 campaign, allowing Andersen to seek pastures new.
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Could, then, this be the start of Samsonov staking a genuine claim to the Leafs’ starting spot, even when Murray is able to return to action? A backup brought in to provide stability that has stepped up in a big way and already has the fanbase warmed up to him. Someone that had a lot of potential earlier in his career but needed a new start to truly show what he can be for a team needing stability? The similarities between the pair are striking, and if things pan out then Samsonov could well be the new Campbell for his team, hopefully for longer.