BUFFALO — Ilya Samsonov is not in a good headspace.
The Maple Leafs goaltender acknowledged as much following Toronto’s worst loss in several years, a 9-3 drubbing at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Arena.
Samsonov’s struggles have become a theme, and it got really bad on Thursday night, as the 26-year-old was pulled after giving up five goals on 19 shots.
“It’s tough right now,” Samsonov said. “I need to figure out everything in my head. That’s the first one. It’s not about technique … just in the head. I need to figure it out.
“I want to try to get change as quick as I can, but sometimes in life it’s not working like that. I will keep fighting.”
Samsonov’s teammates were terrible in front of him. The Leafs gave up nine goals in a game for the first time since Nov. 18, 2014, when they lost 9-2 at home against Nashville.
By the time the game was done, the loss was on all of them, including coach Sheldon Keefe and his staff. Keep in mind that the Sabres, who are not close to a playoff spot, were coming off a 9-4 home loss against lowly Columbus on Tuesday.
“Collectively, probably one of the worst games since I have been here,” Auston Matthews said. “It’s hard to pinpoint one thing. I think it was all just disappointing.
“Embarrassment is probably the right word to use from start to finish, top to bottom, not nearly good enough. Just a bad hockey game from our team.”
Said Keefe: “I don’t have an answer for (the Leafs’ performance). We won’t dissect it, but we won’t forget it.”
During his morning availability, Keefe reasoned that Samsonov more or less had to start in order to try to get his game in shape. Considering the Leafs have not had many practices in recent weeks, there has not been much of a full opportunity for Samsonov to work on his play on non-game days.
An unwritten rule for coaches, and it’s a simple one, is to put the team on the ice that has the best chance of providing a victory. When Samsonov is in goal, that best chance disappears for Toronto.
Martin Jones, who admittedly was not much better in relief in allowing four goals on 15 Sabres shots, should have been in net to start. Prior to Thursday, for the most part he had been sharp.
The Leafs aren’t playing on back-to-back nights. Not starting Jones in Columbus against the Blue Jackets on Saturday in the Leafs’ last game before the Christmas break would be irresponsible.
Joseph Woll, out since he suffered a high ankle sprain on Dec. 7 in Ottawa, can’t heal quick enough, but he won’t be back until some time later in January.
Nearly two weeks ago, the Leafs gave Samsonov plenty of room to breathe and he made 18 saves in a shutout against Nashville. Since, he has lost to the New York Islanders, got lit up against Columbus and then came Thursday night.
“We got to play better in front of him, give him a chance, give him a chance to find himself,” Keefe said.
Keefe bristled when he was asked about being concerned with Samsonov’s mental state.
“You guys always bring out the word ‘concern,’” Keefe said. “It’s not the right way to frame it. We need to be very aware of it, we need to help him through this.”
Samsonov’s night was done when Tage Thompson scored at 8:22 of the second period. Of the five goals allowed by the beleaguered goalie, it was the worst, coming when Samsonov reached for the shot with his catching glove. A majority of minor-hockey goalies would have made the save, and the red light had barely flashed before Keefe looked down the bench and motioned for Jones to get into the crease.
We should stress again that the Leafs won’t win any defensive awards for their sloppy ways. Yet they got no help from Samsonov.
The game started in a similar manner. After knocking Nick Robertson over in the Buffalo end, Jordan Greenway went down the ice and got the puck in the offensive zone, beating Samsonov on a long shot. It was an indication, or omen, of what was to come.
Following goals by Matthews and Max Domi to put the Leafs up 2-1, Owen Power, Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin scored for the Sabres. Calle Jarnkrok got one back for the Leafs, while shorthanded, before Thompson ended Samsonov’s night.
Kyle Okposo scored on the first shot Jones faced. Jack Quinn, Skinner and Okposo scored in the third period.
The Leafs have been rounding a corner defensively, and we don’t expect they could be that bad again any time soon.
Samsonov is another matter. After he was great last season, he has been the opposite in 2023-24.
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The question now: What do the Leafs do about him?
Whatever goalie coach Curtis Sanford has been doing to get Samsonov in the proper frame of mind is not working. When Samsonov is in the crease, he is all over the place.
The Leafs could put Samsonov on waivers and send him to the minors, but really, they are stuck. Neither of the Toronto Marlies’ goalies, Dennis Hildeby and Keith Petruzzelli, has the experience to be recalled and play for a team that likes to think it can do some damage in the playoffs.
Trading for a goalie? No. General manager Brad Treliving’s priority still has to be a defenceman.
It’s becoming more clear, barring a complete reversal by Samsonov, that Jones and Woll will be, or should be, the tandem once Woll returns to health.
Until then, if Samsonov is in goal, the Leafs will have to close their eyes and hope for the best.
That’s not how any club, let alone Toronto, should be conducting its business. When Samsonov is in net, the Leafs don’t have a choice.