Folks, hindsight is 20/20 – particularly in hockey, and especially when it comes to goaltending.
It’s the most chaotic position in professional sports for a reason, after all. Getting pelted with frozen rubber travelling at the minimum speed of a sports car on a freeway can lead to some pretty wild outcomes, skewing results, and our opinions based on them, pretty dramatically in either direction.
What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t get too far ahead of yourself when it comes to evaluating goaltenders. I’ve made this mistake plenty of times, and it’s a guaranteed way to end up on Freezing Cold Takes. Trust me, not all press is good press. No one in Edmonton seems to know this. But I digress.
When it comes to the Maple Leafs’ crease thus far, though, I must admit it’s pretty hard to take my own advice.
We already know that Toronto doesn’t need elite goaltending to achieve regular-season success. This is the same team that managed to stay in the periphery of the Presidents’ Trophy race last season despite neither Jack Campbell nor Petr Mrazek giving them even a .890 save percentage for large chunks of the year.
And while that lack of support might’ve bit them in the behind come playoff time when Campbell put up a .895 in a series the Leafs lost by one goal, you still have to get to the dance in the first place, and the Maple Leafs’ roster did just that with little help from their crease.
It’s that reason why adding not one but two goaltenders currently playing some of the best hockey of their respective careers to this team is such a tantalizing prospect.
Both Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov have been outstanding for the Maple Leafs thus far, albeit when healthy.
Injury absences aside, their numbers speak for themselves through the first quarter of the season. Prior to Saturday night, when Murray stopped 29 of 33 shots versus the Lightning, he sat third among all NHL goaltenders in save percentage with a .927 while Samsonov’s .924 was in fourth. Murray was 10th in goals-saved-above-average while Samsonov came in at 15th. Murray’s 77 percent goals-allowed-adjusted percentage is the fifth-best in the league while Samsonov’s peaked in just below him at sixth.
Case in point, each of Toronto’s goaltending gambles from the off-season has hit to the tune of elite production in a make-or-break year. It’s tough to have asked for anything more than what they’ve done, really. And when placed up against the club’s previous tandem of Mrazek and Campbell, who sit in the bottom 10 of literally every important goalie metric thus far including the three mentioned above, it seems as if the front office made the right choice.
Raw results are fun to ogle at, of course, but it’s the context surrounding them that gives them meaning. And the meaning in this case is that the Leafs’ duo has been even better than advertised.
Let’s take a look at Murray, in particular.
Heading into the 2022 off-season, Murray was pretty much at the end of the road – a toxic asset courtesy of his pricey contract, a litany of health issues and three years’ worth of disappointing recent results.
The Senators had to pay their most hated divisional rival a third-round pick just to convince them to take him off their hands for free. Most people derided the move from the moment it went through, myself included. Few can be blamed for that. What Murray has done has defied all expectations.
And the funniest part is that it shouldn’t be going this well. At least, not in these circumstances.
Aside from the season opener in Montreal, Murray has never played in front of a healthy Leafs blueline. His return from injury on Nov. 15 versus Pittsburgh coincided with TJ Brodie, arguably the team’s most reliable defenseman, going down indefinitely with an oblique injury, while Morgan Rielly succumbed to a knee ailment six days later.
With three of their top four defensemen all on the shelf for extended periods – it’s unclear if Jake Muzzin will ever be back at this point – the Leafs have since been forced to roll with 39-year-old Mark Giordano and perennial whipping boy Justin Holl as their top pair for the time being, with the duo currently sitting 114th in expected-goal share among defense pairings that have played a minimum of 50 minutes together.
That’s not ideal! And yet Murray’s numbers since Brodie’s injury tell a completely different story: a 5-0-2 record and .931 save percentage through seven games – six of which saw Murray face at least 32 shots.
Whereas the Leafs’ defense was forced to compensate for their deficiencies in net in 2021-22, the opposite has rung true in 2022-23, with both Murray and Samsonov giving the club a chance to win night in and night out, regardless of who happens to be in or out of the lineup.
It’s a small sample size, of course. Erik Kallgren is still Toronto’s games played leader in goal ahead of Saturday night thanks to Murray and Samsonov’s respective health scares this season – which, frankly, could still topple this house of cards at any moment.
But after taking two big swings on a pair of reclamation projects and watching them flourish in circumstances that otherwise really should’ve held them back, it’s hard for the Maple Leafs not to look at their goalie depth with pride.
For the time being, Toronto has solved its Achilles heel. And with two capable options instead of one, the safety net seems sturdy enough to withstand the loss of either one.
- It Looks Like the Maple Leafs Made the Right Bet in Goal – For Now
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