The Toronto Maple Leafs entered the 2022-23 season expecting to have two-time Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray as their starting goaltender, but that hasn’t gone to plan so far.
The former Pittsburgh Penguin and Ottawa Senator featured in the team’s fairly uninspiring opening day loss to the Montreal Canadiens, which sees him hold a 4.05 goals against average and a save percentage of just .826 on the season, as that is the only game he has managed to play thus far.
He has since been working on returning to fitness after suffering an injury during training, which has seen him spend the past couple of weeks on LTIR. In his stead, Ilya Samsonov has had to carry the load, with Erik Källgren playing backup as the Leafs have posted a 5-4-2 record through their opening 11 games of the season.
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Samsonov has looked assured between the pipes, regaining some of the performances that impressed in the early days of his NHL career with the Washington Capitals, posting a 2.30 GAA and a truly impressive .920 Sv%, leading the team 5-2-0 in his seven appearances. With how well the 25-year-old Russian has looked, it would be a reasonable expectation to see him continue to hold down the starter’s role even when Murray is fit and ready to return.
Murray is not expected to return anytime soon, unable to come off of LTIR just yet while also still not being in a position physically to do so, which gives Samsonov even more time to impress between the pipes. Riding the hot hand is a philosophy many stand by in the NHL, and it can sometimes lead to surprises emerging, like with Jack Campbell becoming the Leafs’ starter after grabbing his opportunity when Frederik Andersen went down injured.
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When Murray returns, he will undoubtedly be keen to regain his standing as the presumed starter for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but that may not be the best course of action, regardless of who is performing well at the time. With Samsonov, he is clearly healthy and able to take on the additional responsibility and has done so well enough to earn a longer look as the starter. But even if performances were not as positive as they have been, Murray should be held back to some extent regardless.
Murray has a history of injuries, managing to play barely over 20 games a season the past two years in Ottawa, and seeing him rushed back into frequent too early increases the chances that he will aggravate the injury and need to be sidelined for another extended period of time. Having a goaltender frequently in and out of the line-up is not ideal for the Leafs, who are trying to find a secure long-term solution after the change from Andersen two seasons ago, and seeing Murray unable to have a positive impact is less than ideal.
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Keeping Samsonov as the starter, at least for the time being, allowing Murray to make an appearance here or there as he works to regain his fitness and maintain a healthy status, seems to be the most logical solution to the Leafs’ situation. The team is getting good results from a guy they expected to play backup this year, and it shows that there is no need to rush Murray back into action, regardless of how much he counts against the cap.
Ensuring the pair can reach the post-season in a healthy condition will be crucial to the team’s success at the business end of the season, and having Murray take a step back when he returns would be the first step to accomplishing that. If Murray performs well in his brief opportunities upon his return, then that will just secure the Leafs positive results to compliment Samsonov until a time where it looks as if the Thunder Bay, Ontario native is ready to take his job back.
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