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      Samsonov vs. Woll vs. Jones: Who wins the battle for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ crease?

      Can Samsonov hold off Woll for the No. 1 gig? And is Jones more than just insurance?

      Published -

      Sit down. Put on your Leafs jersey. And get ready for me to tell you exactly how the goaltending situation in Toronto is going to play out during the 2023-24 NHL season.

      Ilya Samsonov – last season’s No. 1 netminder for the Maple Leafs – returns on a one-year contract. Joseph Woll – Toronto’s third-round pick (No. 62 overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft – looked fantastic in 11 games last season. And veteran Martin Jones, who recently signed a one-year pact with the Maple Leafs, is also in the mix.

      All three netminders are on one-way contracts. And therein lies a key component: all three would have to clear waivers in order to be assigned to the Marlies, Toronto’s AHL-affiliate that also plays in Ontario’s capital.

      That’s important. Because there’s no chance Woll – the most exciting Leafs goaltending prospect in well over a decade – clears waivers. He’s 25 years old with unlimited upside. And his contract is super team-friendly: Woll’s deal runs through the 2024-25 season and carries a cap hit of just under $777,000.

      Despite him having only 15 NHL games under his belt, teams would be falling over themselves to claim Woll. And it’s not like Samsonov is getting sent down any time soon: his .919 save percentage in 42 appearances with the Leafs last season was a step forward in his career. The 26-year old Russian netminder showed well enough to be the team’s No. 1 goaltender when the Stanley Cup Playoffs began.

      But what about Jones? Does he have any chance of making the roster out of training camp?  Could he play spoiler?

      To me, it’s none of the above. I think Jones – and his $875,000 salary – is simply insurance for the Leafs. Especially during the early going of the 2022-23 season.

      Why? Because I think Leafs GM Brad Treliving knows he can’t roll into the 2023-24 season with two goalies – Woll and Samsonov – that have yet to be proven durable. And that’s my bold, out of left field prediction: one of them will get hurt during training camp. And Jones will be needed at the start of the 2023-24 season.

      I know, it’s a terrible prediction on my part. Injuries suck. I wouldn’t wish one on anyone. But Woll missed the first part of the 2022-23 season recovering from shoulder surgery and ankle injury suffered during the rehab period. And Samsonov wasn’t at full health when Toronto’s season was ended by the Florida Panthers in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

      Signing Jones gives the Leafs peace of mind between the pipes. Sure, the 33-year old netminder’s .887 SV% in 48 games last season with the Seattle Kraken is concerning. But he did win 27 times, and Jones has featured in 444 regular season NHL contests during his decade-long career.

      Experience matters. Regardless of the fact his save percentage hasn’t eclipsed .900 in five years, Jones can step into Toronto’s lineup and perform without the pressure that a young prospect would face.

      But here’s the thing: I’m not sure Jones would clear waivers. If Woll and Samsonov make it through training camp unscathed, the Leafs face a real possibility of losing Jones for nothing.

      That’s a risk I think Treliving had to take when he signed Jones, because Toronto is very much in win-now mode. And goaltending is a key component. Having three capable NHL netminders is a wise move to start the year. The Leafs can’t afford to give games away early due to inexperience in the crease.

      So what happens once Toronto gets back to full health a few weeks into the season? Well, that’s simple. Jones goes on waivers, and Treliving crosses his fingers that the veteran goalkeeper clears.

      Will it happen? I think so. By a few weeks into the season, most teams have stabilized in goal. So I’m predicting that Jones will clear waivers and be assigned to the Marlies. Which might be a stretch. But having Jones stashed with the Marlies would be a huge win for both the Maple Leafs and the AHL team. Remember: he’s insurance.

      From that point forward, Toronto has a battle on its hands. I don’t care that Samsonov is making $3.55 million during the 2023-24 season, or that he was the Maple Leafs’ defacto No. 1 goaltender for most of the 2022-23 season. Both goalies are going to play. And I think Woll has the inside track to take over the starting job when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.

      And yes, cynical reader, the Leafs are going to make the postseason. Put a big old Billy Guerin-tee on it.

      So why Woll? Because he was dominant in the AHL during the 2022-23 season. And Woll carried that momentum to the Maple Leafs when he was recalled late in the year. The 6-foot-3 netminder from Dardenne Prairie, Missouri posted a .932 SV% and won six of seven starts.

      I think Woll’s technical precision lends itself to consistency. And he has the focused, steely mindset necessary to succeed in hockey’s biggest pressure cooker. It may have taken him longer than Toronto had hoped for to reach the NHL, but Woll was slowed by injuries and two COVID-shortened seasons. He’s been trending upward for the past two seasons.

      Obviously I’m bullish on Woll. And I’m not saying Samsonov doesn’t have what it takes to be a solid NHL goaltender. He’s previously shown flashes of brilliance. But dating back to his time with the Washington Capitals, Samsonov hasn’t been able to string it together for a full season. And his 5-10 record during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, along with a 3.06 goals against average, is concerning.

      By today’s standards, Samsonov plays a relatively loose game. At times he struggles to get his feet set early, which leads to unnecessary scrambling and sliding. It’s not uncommon to see Samsonov flailing in the white ice. But he does have a strong natural feel for the game, and when he’s focused, Samsonov can be tough to beat.

      Unless Samsonov has made improvements during the offseason, I believe he’s likely to share the net with Woll, rather than own it like a true starting netminder. I envision the season playing out much like Samsonov’s time with the Capitals, when he was unable to outplay Vitek Vanecek and claim Washington’s crease for good. 

      The duo largely shared the net for the better part of two seasons without a true victor being crowned. And the Capitals eventually gave up on both of them during the summer of 2022. Vanecek was traded to the New Jersey Devils, while Samsonov – a restricted free agent at the time – wasn’t offered a contract extension.

      My prediction: for two-thirds of Toronto’s season, Woll and Samsonov will go back and forth. They’ll both have solid numbers. But Samsonov will continue to allow frustrating goals, while Woll will continue to gain confidence at the NHL level.

      With experience comes patience, and Woll is just now scratching the surface. Whereas with Samsonov, what you see is what you get.

      I think the Leafs are in a really good spot with the goaltending, especially with Jones in the mix. But place your bets on Woll. Because he’s going to be the Leafs’ starting goalie for the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

      _____

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