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The Toronto Maple Leafs face an uncertain path with the search for a new general manager replacing Kyle Dubas, head coach Sheldon Keefe in a state of limbo, 10 unrestricted free agents and the future of the core four in question.
In the first of a series of articles, we are taking a look at certain roster scenarios and what path the club is likely to take, and what alternate scenarios are possible. Today we look at the Leafs goaltending.
Toronto’s situation between the pipes has been a focal point of criticism for over 20 years, since the days of Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour. The Leafs have gone the free-agent route for Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson, tried to develop their own goalie with James Reimer, and attempted to plug the hole by trading for veterans like Andrew Raycroft, J-S Giguere, Frederik Andersen, Vesa Toskala, and Jonathan Bernier without any real success.
This season Dubas was wise not to sign Jack Campbell to the five-year deal that Edmonton did, since he ended up a high-priced backup to Calder Trophy nominee Stuart Skinner. He instead rolled the dice on the two-time Cup winner Matt Murray and grabbed Ilya Samsonov in free agency on a one-year, $1.8 million deal after Washington refused to qualify him.
The Leafs went into the season with open eyes with Murray, hoping to limit his workload and get him through the season to where his experience would pay off in the playoffs, but the veteran had three lengthy stints on the injured list, including a concussion in early April. Murray ended the year with a 14-8-2 record, 3.02 GAA, and .903 save percentage.
The intention was for Samsonov to be a 1B to Murray, but with his frequent absences, head coach Sheldon Keefe gained confidence in the 26-year-old and he rewarded the Leafs with an impressive 27-10-5 record, 2.33 GAA, and .919 save percentage. In the postseason, Samsonov was solid against Tampa, outdueling Andrei Vasilevskiy in the deciding Game 6 overtime victory, and against Florida until leaving early in Game 3 after a collision with Luke Schenn.
Joseph Woll’s progress was a pleasant surprise for the club. After missing most of training camp recovering from shoulder surgery and a knee injury, Woll had an All-Star year in the AHL, going 16-4-1 with the Toronto Marlies, and was frequently called up to serve as the backup. Only late in the season did the 24-year-old get an extended look and when he did, Woll impressed going 6-1-0, with a 2.16 GAA and .932 save %.
After Samsonov’s injury, Woll was calm and confident in his three playoff games, losing in overtime twice and winning 2-1 in Game 4 against Florida.
It has to be said that what form the goaltending takes next season will depend on the designs of the new GM, but the likely path the Leafs will take is:
1) The buyout of Murray – The confirmation at the end-of-season media availability that Murray was medically cleared and able to back up Woll at the end of the Panthers series makes a buyout of the final year of his contract possible.
If the Leafs choose to go this direction, they would save $4 million in cap space in 2023-24 with a buyout cap hit of only $687,500, but in 2024-25, they would take a hit of $2 million. A trade similar to the deal they made with Chicago to rid themselves of Petr Mrazek’s two remaining seasons is possible, but the cap hit is so friendly for next season that a buyout is the path of least resistance.
2) Sign Samsonov to a one-year deal – There might be the urge to lock up Samsonov to a long-term deal after his excellent performance last season, but with the number of free agents over the next few seasons, the Leafs might want to maintain as much cap flexibility as possible.
The 26-year-old is a restricted free agent is arbitration-eligible and is one year away from hitting the open market as a UFA. Toronto could qualify Samsonov and go to arbitration, perhaps settling in the neighborhood of $3 million on a one-year deal.
3) Woll becomes backup or 1B to Samsonov – There is not a lot of evidence, but it appears that the 24-year-old is ready to be a tandem partner at the NHL level next season. The fact that Woll is no longer waiver-exempt forces the Leafs hand on that score, but his $775,000 salary for the next two seasons is a big plus.
4) Alternate scenario - If there is a recognition on the part of the Leafs hierarchy that their lack of playoff success is a result of not having a top-of-the-line goalie, they could explore the trade market to see if starters like Thatcher Demko, John Gibson, or Connor Hellebuyck are available. Acquiring any of these three would only result from a deal involving William Nylander or Mitch Marner or moving out one of those forwards in a separate deal to accommodate their salary.