Quick Shifts: Maple Leafs dress three goalies with plenty to prove

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov. (Frank Gunn/CP Photo)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Coulda sworn I got cancelled. Turns out, it was just summer.

1. On July 21, when Brad Treliving bumped into Ilya Samsonov for the first time, the two men were entering a building to argue over the player’s salary for the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ critical 2023-24 season.

Smartly, the approachable general manager tried keeping the mood light, busting the ice.

“You know,” Treliving said to Samsonov. “It’s a little bit unique that the first time you meet your goaltender is at the courthouse.”

And while the verdict on Toronto’s No. 1 netminder — one more prove-it year at a $3.55 million — may favour Treliving and his tight cap management, the jury on the Maple Leafs goaltending situation is very much still out.

“It’s like dog years. In goaltending years, Ilya [at age 26] is still a young goaltender. And I think he had his most productive year as a pro. I thought he had a terrific season,” Treliving explains. “There’s still certainly growth there. I like the summer that he’s had. Ilya has been back for some time in town and training.”

Barring injury, Samsonov will no doubt patrol the pipes on Oct. 11, when the Leafs open their campaign against the Montreal Canadiens. Over its past four season-openers, Toronto will dress four different No. 1 netminders.

All that turnover (and all these LTIR moves and salary-dump trades) at the position, the organization hopes, could end if 25-year-old Joseph Woll emerges into the homegrown stud that has long eluded the Maple Leafs.

The trick for Treliving is to provide opportunity while not overwhelming with pressure or rushing with responsibility. While technically and mentally sound, Woll, a patiently developed 2016 draftee, has all of 11 career NHL games on his résumé.

“Joe is a terrific young goaltender. We got a chance to see that last year in his limited time he had here, then he made some starts in the playoffs,” Treliving says. “I’ve gone back and watched the starts that he has had. But I knew Joe coming in, going back to his amateur career, seeing him in the American League. So, I think he’s ready to grab a hold of a job here.”

Sure, the Maple Leafs would love its other cheap, young goalies in the system (Dennis Hildeby, Keith Petruzzelli) to elevate into the real deal, too. But in the meantime, Treliving wisely signed veteran Martin Jones as insurance.

Jones alone has 300 more NHL games under his belt than Samsonov and Woll combined (444-144). And while there may be risk of losing the cap-friendly Jones ($875,000) to the waiver wire should an opponent lose a goalie to preseason injury, Treliving is content with his three-headed crease.

“I feel we’ve got depth, and we’ve got players there. We’ve got experience [in Jones]. We’ve got a player that to me is just coming into their own in Ilya, and a young player that’s just starting to emerge in Joe,” Treliving says.

All three should understand how the organization views their role, their future.

Yet there is only one home net in this city. How it gets shared and how it gets transitioned will always be a source of debate and tension. Treliving is doing his best to smooth out a potentially prickly situation.

“There’s some myths with arbitration that it’s this big all-out war, and you stand up and throw rocks at each other for three hours. The reason [Samsonov] got to arbitration is we couldn’t get a deal done, right?” Treliving says. “We couldn’t do that through negotiation, not for lack of trying on both sides. So, we had a good chat before, we had a good chat after, we’ve had many chats since…. I don’t think anybody should worry about any arbitration scabs or scars lingering.”

“We’re through it and got that behind us, and I’m excited about the season.”

So are Samsonov and Woll and Jones. All three have plenty to prove and would love as much ice time to do so.

2. In his rookie year, Sidney Crosby scored 32 goals and 102 points. Young Alex Ovechkin ripped 52 and stacked 106. Connor McDavid‘s Calder bid was chopped short due to a broken collarbone, but he was on pace for 29 goals and 87 points.

It is against this backdrop that Connor Bedard sharpens his blades in Chicago and fantasy GMs wonder how quickly to pull the trigger on a phenom who erupted for 71 goals and 143 points in 57 WHL games as a 17-year-old.

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That Bedard trained alongside the likes of McDavid and Crosby at BioSteel Camp in Halifax last week ahead of Blackhawks camp should only whet the appetite. The rookie says he was “a sponge” during that time, soaking up as much insight as possible from two of the only people on Earth who have lived his hype.

“Connor (McDavid) has given me lots of good advice,” Bedard said. “I’m not him. I’m my own person, my own player. He’s the pinnacle right now… How can I get closer to him? I think that’s such a great thing about sport is, you’re always competing against guys.”

No. 1 overall to No. 1 overall, McDavid quickly points to Bedard’s shot as the most fearsome weapon in the 18-year-old’s quiver.

Cale Makar, another BioSteel camper, can’t pick just one, noting that Bedard’s stickhandling and dedication also caught his eye. Working out alongside established NHL superstars, Makar says Bedard was routinely the last guy to leave the ice.

“All his tools are pretty amazing. It’s fun to watch,” Makar says.

And fun to predict how bonkers the numbers Chicago’s lottery ticket might yield.

“You can barely talk about his stats because they’re so ridiculous,” Bedard said of No. 97.

Soon, we could be saying the same things about No. 98.

3. Ahead of July’s It’s All a Blur tour stop at Chicago’s United Center, Drake posted a photo of Bedard to his 142 million Instagram followers with the caption “Dialed in.”

Yes, Bedard noticed.

And, no, he would not turn down a photo op from his fellow Canadian. Drake curse be damned.

“If he wants a photo, I’m probably gonna say yes. So, maybe try to break the curse,” Bedard said.

“I’m pretty superstitious, but I’m not just gonna reject Drake from a photo. I’d probably be the one asking him.”

4. With all the chatter over contract ceilings and highest-paid players, with all the anticipation over the summer of 2024 and the end of the flat-cap era, keep in mind that Leon Draisaitl is eligible to re-sign in Edmonton on July 1.

A steal at his current $8.5 million AAV, Draisaitl’s impressive regular seasons (744 points in 638 games) are topped by how he elevates come playoffs (77 points in 49 games).

“He’s set career high after career high, every year. I mean, I would expect the same thing for him. I know he’s super motivated. I know he’s dying to get back playing,” McDavid says.

“And a motivated Leon is not somebody that is to be messed with.”

5. Among healthy goaltenders, Connor Hellebuyck‘s AAV ($6.17 million) ranks fourth, behind Sergei Bobrovsky, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and John Gibson.

While it may be a while before we see a goaltender sign for eight figures, as Bobrovsky did, Hellebuyck — a pending free agent set to meet with Jets management soon — will press for something nearing the $9.5-million ballpark of Vasilevskiy — his favourite goalie to battle against.

“He’s a solid goaltender in all attributes of his game. And I think we’re two completely different goaltenders. So, it’s fun to watch. It’s not like you see any similarities at all. It’s just completely different, and he’s really good. So, I like to compete against that,” says Hellebuyck, who morphs back into a happy spectator once the puck clears the D-zone.

“When you’re not getting any shots at your end, you gotta be a fan of the game, still enjoy yourself. I think that’s what makes the downtime so smooth and helps me from wandering mentally. I’m a fan of the game. I’m still watching and picturing myself: What would I do in situations?”

6. The more you know: Jaromir Jagr became a massive fan of American football when he arrived in North America. He watched every Sunday and took a liking to John Elway’s comeback Denver Broncos.

So the Jagr salute was actually an homage to Terrell Davis’s post-touchdown salute. I had no idea until Jagr’s excellent Spittin’ Chicklets interview.

7. With Ryan O’Reilly signing in Nashville and the Maple Leafs’ centre depth taking a gut punch, some competition should emerge for the 4C role behind David Kämpf. (My take: Max Domi is better suited to the wing, though I’m sure he’ll get a look in the middle at some point as well.)

This week’s signing of Noah Gregor to a tryout adds veteran competition for the likes of prospect Pontus Holmberg (waivers exempt) and Dylan Gambrell to make the opening-night roster.

Unqualified by San Jose, Gregor, 25, is a little bigger and younger than Gambrell, 27, and has shown more offensive upside. At the very least, he’ll push some fringe Leafs forwards already under contract to bust their butts in preseason and offer Keefe another cheap option to fill a position of weakness.

8. Not since his first season (2016-17) at the helm of the Ottawa Senators has Pierre Dorion dressed a playoff team.

Well, if the exec’s long-view bets on youth cash in, the Sens are on the brink of a long window of relevance.

With Thursday’s quick-twitch signing of 21-year-old defenceman Jake Sanderson — a $64-million commitment after 77 games makes for some expensive RFA years but a possible steal down the road — Dorion now has five twentysomethings locked up through 2027-28 or beyond at cap hits between $7.95 million and $8.35 million.

Prices that should only look better over time and with a rising cap. Prices that should alleviate jealousy. Prices that allow room for signing decent support.

Tim Stützle, Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Josh Norris, and Sanderson: There’s your core, Senators fans.

Chabot is the oldest among the group. He’s 26.

Many scoffed, way back in 2018, when Dorion optimistically said of his Senators: “We’re a team.”

Years later, the Sens are shaping up to be one for a while.

There’s reason for excitement in the nation’s capital.

9. Armed with two more years of financial security, and reporting to a new boss, I’m curious to see how Sheldon Keefe speaks publicly about his players after a sub-par effort.

In the past, the coach has (rightly) criticized his team on a few occasions but later walked back some sharp postgame remarks.

I asked Treliving his stance on head coaches calling out players in front of the media. Here are his thoughts:

“The ultimate job of the coach is to maximize the performance of the individual and therefore the performance of the team. And there’s different ways to do it. Some days aren’t all rainbows and lollipops. This is a hard business, and it’s a hard league. And to do great things is difficult, and you have to push people out of their comfort zone. So I think there’s always ways that you can push players.

“You want to be careful. I’ve always felt that the hardest conversations are usually best handled behind closed doors. And I don’t think a player needs to be admonished publicly to understand if there’s something that the coach feels he needs to get better at.

“Having said that, it’s an emotional game. Things happen. I’m sure there’s going to be emotional times this year… When you live in this business and you work in it and this is what you do and you’re invested the way everybody is invested, sometimes there’s an emotional shrapnel that comes up.

“I haven’t been through it in Toronto. I’m sure it flies right under the radar in Toronto, and nothing ever gets printed. And there’s no headlines for it, I’m sure. But what I found out is, nine times out of 10, that’s just a little bit of noise and emotion. You certainly don’t want that every day. But to think that you’re not going to have some of that every once in a while, we’re probably kidding ourselves. But I think you handle your business as men behind closed doors, face to face, and I’m sure that’s how a lot of it will be handled moving forward.”

Emotional shrapnel. I’m stealing that. Love is a battlefield.

10. Steven Stamkos, multi-sport athlete:

11. You wouldn’t know it by peeking at his final three ice times of the season — 26:59, 26:53, and 26:09 in the Colorado Avalanche‘s Round 1 upset by the Seattle Kraken — but Cale Makar was still hurting something fierce from his late-regular-season lower-body injury.

The former Norris champ describes this summer as “a grind” to get his body back into top form after 2022-23’s nagging ailments “lasted longer than expected.”

Makar says he is thrilled with management’s off-season additions — Ryan Johansen, Ross Colton, Miles Wood, Jonathan Drouin — and has picked up on a renewed focus among his fellow 2022 champions.

These Avs are so itching to get back to camp, almost everyone reported to Denver two weeks ahead of camp. That wasn’t quite the case a year ago, following a deliriously boozy summer sharing Stanley. The silver lining of an early exit has been time to physically recover and mentally reset.

“Everything felt like it was in super-speed mode last summer,” says Makar, who believes the Avs are a legit contender to reclaim the Cup.

Remember: Less than a decade ago, the Blackhawks and Kings each won two titles in three-year spans.

“I’m excited. It should be a fun one,” Makar says. “I hope this window is very long.”

12. For the first off-season in four years, the hockey world has been blessed with a full, back-to-normal summer (July 1 free agency to mid-September training camp). What a beautiful thing.

In speaking to players, executives, fans and fellow reporters, precious time away has refreshed and fueled anticipation for 2023-24.

How can I miss you when you won’t go away?

Now: Let’s go.

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