In goal, the game’s most important position, the Maple Leafs certainly have the numbers this year.
But whether their four netminders can sustain health, consistency and get ample playing time in the NHL or the farm is the great unknown with opening night approaching.
For one, don’t expect to see Matt Murray on the ice for a minimum of six to eight months, if at all in 2023-24, after successful bilateral hip surgery the past few days, announced by the club Monday morning. In finally revealing his condition, the club underlined why he was moved to Long Term Injured Reserve a few weeks ago, with them getting relief from his $4,687,500 US salary cap hit.
The good news is that veteran Martin Jones cleared waivers Tuesday afternoon, an insurance policy that new general manager Brad Treliving purchased in the summer. A few years ago at this time, the Leafs lost both back-ups Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers, leaving an unprepared Garret Sparks to augment an oft-injured Frederik Andersen.
That leaves Ilya Samsonov to reclaim his No. 1 role on Wednesday against Montreal and Joseph Woll next up. Samsonov, however, didn’t get through last season unscathed and while Woll won six of seven regular-season starts to convince the Leafs not to risk him ahead of Jones on the wire, was that enough sample size to think he can take on more work?
Murray has been dogged by various injuries since his last season with Ottawa, including a couple of concussions. But an adductor injury after his first start with the Leafs last October gave a hint of the hip troubles. Double surgery is no picnic, though he’s just 29 and could conceivably return for playoffs.
“I’m happy the procedure went well and he seems in good spirits,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said Monday. “He’s got a long road ahead, but it will be good to see him around. When you talk to him, he’s willing to put the work in and knows this was a necessary thing for him in his career.”
When unencumbered by medical woes, Murray had a .903 save percentage for the Leafs, winning 14 of 24 decisions.
Samsonov had been a back-up in Washington, making the most of his chance last year whenever Murray went down. Though there was a contract dispute until he and Treliving sawed off at $3.55 million in arbitration for this year, he has embraced the team and the Toronto spotlight.
“I think our goaltending is really strong, a strength of our organization,” said captain John Tavares. “It has been really well-rounded in my time here. We had four very capable goalies last year (including Erik Kallgren, now with New Jersey) which is quite a few and we’re right there this year.”
The well-travelled Jones won 27 games last season with the Seattle Kraken, his fourth NHL team. It was unlikely he’d be claimed Monday since interested teams could’ve secured him as a UFA in the summer, but there was also a reported $100,000 bonus, payable this week built into his one-year Leafs contract of $875,000 if he was taken by another team.
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The Leafs already have Keith Petruzzelli on the AHL Marlies with young draft picks Dennis Hildeby and Vyacheslav Peska, so it’s unclear how Jones will keep busy in the short term.
“I’m excited about the guys we have in net, just as competitors and people,” Tavares said. “We’re happy Mur is on the road to recovery and still part of our team. He’s got a tremendous amount of talent and ability (a Stanley Cup winner for Pittsburgh).”
The Leafs don’t have back-to-back games until Nov. 10-11 to ensure a split of the assignments, but a five-game road trip early in the schedule and the overseas trip in November to Stockholm to play Detroit and Minnesota could see them take three netminders.