The Toronto Maple Leafs are desperate to overcome their first-round playoff blues, and goaltending will once again be crucial to any chance they have of succeeding.
It has been six consecutive seasons where the Toronto Maple Leafs have failed to progress beyond the first round of the playoffs, despite wholesale changes to the roster since the beginning of this run.
For the 2022-23 season, the top priority will be to finally overcome the hurdle and push the team away from the naysayers and doubters of this core. Consisting of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, this is a group that believes things need to be blown up once again.
The Leafs had a historically strong season last time out, breaking the franchise record for wins (54) and total points (115) during the regular season. Still, it wasn’t enough to defeat the then-reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
There was little more the Leafs could do. They played well, they pushed as hard as they could, but it just wasn’t enough. Now, the team will be looking to go again but with a slightly different roster.
The top pieces are still there, the defensive corps remains effectively untouched, and some depth additions have been made to fill out the offense. But where it really matters is between the pipes, with two new faces brought in to work in tandem this season.
Toronto Maple Leafs need solid goaltending with Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov
The Leafs have struggled for goaltending consistency throughout the 21st century, with Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour and Frederik Andersen arguably being the most consistent. Even then, all three suffered through disappointing final seasons before moving on to new teams.
With Andersen’s departure last summer, the Leafs looked to have solved their goaltending concerns with Jack Campbell’s impressive showing last season. Early on, it looked to have been a master stroke, as he earned himself an All-Star nod.
Fast forward, and Campbell, who had a difficult time after November, has joined the Edmonton Oilers. That means that the Toronto Maple Leafs will be sporting a new tandem in the form of two-time Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray and former Washington Capital Ilya Samsonov.
Matt Murray has had his difficulties in recent years, both in terms of performances as well as with injuries, while Ilya Samsonov had largely been a backup before playing in 44 games last season.
For the Leafs, the hope will be that they can work with Murray and get him back to being the goaltender that the Pittsburgh Penguins saw early on in his career, while Samsonov will have the chance to step in when required and be a more serviceable second option compared to last season’s backup, Petr Mrázek.
Murray featured in just 20 games with the Ottawa Senators last season, but through the first 18 games of his season, he sported an impressive .920 save percentage while facing an average of around 33 shots per game.
If the 28-year-old from Thunder Bay, Ontario is able to replicate this with the Leafs and remain healthy for at least half of the season, then there’s reason to believe the team is in good hands in net. There’s also a stronger roster in front of Murray capable of alleviating the pressure for him.
Samsonov featured in all five of the Capitals’ playoff games, coming up against a red-hot Florida Panthers side and posting a fairly respectable .913 save percentage in the process. If he can perform around .915 through the regular season, that will be a good return from the Moscow native.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will need both Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov to perform at their very best next season, with expectations higher than ever at a critical junction. The Leafs will finally need to progress beyond the first round of the playoffs after six consecutive years of failure.
2004 was the last time the Leafs won a round in the post-season, and goaltending could very well be the difference in whether or not the team is able to achieve this goal in 2023 — or leave the fans asking more questions for another summer.