Ilya Samsonov and the Toronto Maple Leafs are running it back.
It took an arbitration hearing to pin down the terms that would bring the 26-year-old back to Toronto next season, with Samsonov awarded a one-year, $3.55-million pact to continue his run in blue and white. It’s another odd turn in the unexpected ascent that saw the former first-round pick join the Maple Leafs as something of a low-stakes gamble and ultimately wind up as the clear-cut top option by season’s end. Now, he’ll head into 2023-24 as Toronto’s No. 1 goaltender, the team’s future at the position uncertain beyond that.
Rewind back to this time last year, and it’s fair to assume this isn’t how the Maple Leafs brass saw their goaltending shaking out. Back then, it was Matt Murray who was brought in with much fanfare by the club’s front office, eating up nearly $5 million in cap space amid hopes he could recover his Stanley Cup-winning form. Samsonov, meanwhile, came in quietly on a one-year, $1.8-million deal. In the end, injuries held Murray back again, Samsonov settled in, and the latter took over.
Zoom out to the goaltending journey the league’s gone on as a whole of late, and the Maple Leafs’ situation seems to be something of a microcosm of that bigger picture, a sample of the overall unpredictability of the position in recent years. Looking back to last year’s off-season, and all the turnover that came from the goalie carousel being spun, and we saw a number of clubs follow a similar path — some betting big on new starters, others rolling the dice on cheaper options, and all getting mixed results.
That being the case, we took a look back at the 2022 goalie musical chairs that brought Samsonov and Murray to Toronto, to see how the rest of the biggest goalie moves from the past year panned out.
Diamonds in the rough
Comb through the goalie transactions that had the biggest impacts on this past season, and more than a few were clubs taking flyers on low-risk options, who vastly outplayed expectations.
Adin Hill, Vegas Golden Knights
Acquired by Vegas for a 2024 fourth-round pick
Tops among this group has to be Hill, who was plucked from the San Jose Sharks by Vegas in August for a fourth-round pick. The journeyman backup had played five seasons when that trade sent him to Vegas, having spent the first four years of his career in Arizona before a 2021 trade had sent him to San Jose. He’d excelled in brief spurts for both clubs, but overall had gotten little opportunity to prove what he was capable of. A series of events in Vegas thrust Hill into the spotlight, though, with Robin Lehner, Laurent Brossoit and Logan Thompson all sidelined by injury. The 27-year-old wound up closing out the regular season in promising fashion, putting up a sterling .932 save percentage in the post-season, and backstopping Vegas to a Stanley Cup.
Filip Gustavsson, Minnesota Wild
Acquired by Minnesota for Cam Talbot
Given how the 2022-23 season played out for Gustavsson, it’s easy to forget how the young netminder’s tenure in Minnesota started — with the 25-year-old thrown into a deal that sent disgruntled veteran Cam Talbot to Ottawa, after Talbot and GM Bill Guerin butted heads over the club’s decision to extend fellow veteran Marc-Andre Fleury. In the end, the crease belonged to Gustavsson, as the former Senator came up with a breakout year in Minnesota, posting a .931 save percentage that ranked second-best among all goalies who played as many games as him, behind only Vezina Trophy winer Linus Ullmark of the Boston Bruins. He showed promise in the playoffs too, ultimately falling to the Dallas Stars, but coming up with two strong performances in his first two career post-season games before that, during which he turned aside 74 of 77 shots.
Ilya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs
Signed by Toronto to one-year, $1.8-million deal
And then there’s Samsonov, who came to Toronto as a wild-card backup option, a stopgap to turn to if Murray’s injury issues wreaked havoc once again. The young ex-Capital was only available because Washington chose not to qualify him when he hit restricted free agency, a far fall for the 2015 22nd-overall pick. Signing with Toronto seemed a chance to build his stock back up in the No. 2 role. Instead, he started stringing wins together. And he provided some much-needed durability too, starting 15 of 17 tilts through January and February. With a .919 save percentage on the year, and enough stability in the cage to break Toronto’s elusive first-round post-season curse, the 26-year-old wound up a worthwhile find for the blue and white.
Alex Lyon, Florida Panthers
Signed by Florida to one-year, $750,000 deal
The club that ended Samsonov’s post-season run came up with a clutch find themselves. It wasn’t Lyon who carried the Panthers past Toronto and all the way to the Stanley Cup Final — that Cinderella run came courtesy of $70-million man Sergei Bobrovsky — but it was Lyon who gave his Panthers a chance to be there at all. The veteran journeyman came into 2022-23 having spent the majority of his career in the AHL, getting into a handful of big-league games over the previous few years for Carolina and Philadelphia. He joined the Panthers on a two-way, $750,000 deal, buried deep in the depth chart. But down the home stretch of the campaign, starter Bobrovsky fell ill, and it was announced young talent Spencer Knight was taking time away from the team to join the NHL/NHLPA’s Player Assistance Program. The spotlight fell on Lyon. With Florida barely in the playoff picture, the vet reeled off six straight wins in the final weeks of the season, lifted the club up the standings, and allowed the Panthers to make the playoffs by a single point.
Then there were the bigger rolls of the dice, the clubs that went all-in on new starters, acquiring star backups, banking on them being able to prove themselves in greater roles.
Alexandar Georgiev, Colorado Avalanche
Acquired by Colorado for three draft picks (2022 third- and fifth-rounder, 2023 third-rounder), and signed to three-year, $10.2-million deal
One of the boldest moves on the goaltending front, league-wide, had to be Colorado, the club that watched Darcy Kuemper lead them to their first Stanley Cup in two decades, and ultimately let him walk in free agency. In his place, the Avs brought in Georgiev, betting on the New York Rangers backup with a three-year, $10.2-million deal. On one hand, Georgiev had proven over the course of his half-decade in Manhattan that he was worthy of a greater role. On the other, he wasn’t necessarily coming off a sterling 2021-22 campaign. Still, the Avs swung for him. And the 26-year-old proved a worthwhile gamble, Georgiev putting up career numbers — a .918 save percentage, five shutouts and a league-best 40 wins to his name by the year’s end. It was enough to make good on Colorado’s hopes, and even earn a lone Vezina vote.
Vitek Vanecek, New Jersey Devils
Acquired by New Jersey, along with picks, for two 2022 second-round picks, and signed to three-year, $10.2-million deal
The Devils made a similar bet, bringing in Vanecek after a 2021-22 campaign that saw the 27-year-old split time in the Capitals crease with Samsonov, and come out the better of the two. Jersey headed into 2022-23 craving some sense of stability in the cage after a tumultuous season that saw seven netminders get games in their crease. But Vanecek, while a better bet than the options they had in-house, wasn’t exactly a sure thing. He’d posted a .908 save percentage in each of his past two seasons, and aside from the 131 games that comprised his two Caps campaigns, he’d spent the rest of his pro career in the AHL and ECHL. But after a four-year, slow-and-steady ascent that saw New Jersey improve but remain outside of the playoff picture, Vanecek gave them enough in net to take a massive leap forward in 2022-23, the netminder the final piece that allowed the Devils to climb to second in their division, return to the post-season, and win a round.
Big money meh
While some clubs aimed high and found gems, and others did the same and struck out, a few teams bet big and saw their 2022-23 amount to a shoulder shrug — a campaign of some progress, but ultimately disappointing results.
Ville Husso, Detroit Red Wings
Acquired by Detroit for a 2022 third-round pick, signed to three-year, $14.25-million deal
The Red Wings found themselves in a similar position as the young Devils — a growing core of young talent, incremental growth, but in need of a more substantial step forward. Also similar was their question mark in the crease, the club having bet on Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic and getting limited success in 2021-22. In Husso, they seemed to find the perfect do-over for that strategy, the Blues netminder breaking out with a .919 season in St. Louis, earning a Vezina vote, and seemingly setting himself up to be the biggest name on the goalie free-agent market before the Red Wings snagged him. But it didn’t necessarily all go to plan. While Husso looked strong for stretches in his first season as a Red Wing, he ultimately left more to be desired by season’s end. There’s no question the defensive strength of the group in front of him played a role, and that he could still thrive as that group improves. Still, given the numbers he put up previously, and the fact that Detroit gave him more money than the two goalies above, the first chapter of Husso’s Red Wings tenure finished as something of a disappointment.
Darcy Kuemper, Washington Capitals
Signed by Washington to five-year, $26.25-million deal
The Capitals found themselves in a similar spot with Kuemper. Moving on from both Samsonov and Vanecek, Washington opted to go for the biggest fish they could find in the off-season, going out and signing the netminder who led Colorado to Stanley Cup glory. It didn’t come cheap, as they inked the veteran to a five-year deal that takes him into his late 30s, which came with the highest cap hit of the goalie adds mentioned here. But the first season of that five-year pact was a rocky one. It’s not that Kuemper was a flat-out disappointment — he simply wasn’t able to live up to the hype and match the heights he’d reached a year prior, the 33-year-old finishing with a .908 save percentage, a steep drop from the .921 during his Cup year. There’s little doubt he can find his form and reclaim his place as a top-tier netminder, but given the weight of the deal he signed, and what his replacement did in Colorado for roughly half the price, again, it’s hard to imagine Caps fans not wanting more.
On the other side of the carousel, we saw some high-stakes gambles that simply didn’t pan out at all — clubs who went out and brought home what they felt were big-ticket acquisitions, and saw them have little impact when all was said and done.
Jack Campbell, Edmonton Oilers
Signed by Edmonton to five-year, $25-million deal
Campbell and the Oilers faithful were spared the full weight of the disappointment of the former Maple Leafs goalie’s first year in Edmonton, as a fortunate turn saw the campaign also mark the breakout of young star Stuart Skinner. That wasn’t the plan when Edmonton inked Campbell to a hefty five-year, $25-million pact — the thinking then was that their marquee signing could give Edmonton a bona fide No. 1 for the first time in years. The club had found that by season’s end, but it was Skinner, who put up a .914 save percentage and earned an All-Star nod. For Campbell, who’d seemed to prove himself in Toronto with a strong, albeit streaky, season as the blue-and-white’s No. 1, the 2022-23 season wound up a significant step back. The 31-year-old finished with a career-low .888 save percentage, did little to shed the ‘streaky’ label, and cast doubt on the four remaining years of his deal.
Matt Murray, Toronto Maple Leafs
Acquired by Toronto, along with two picks, for future considerations
The knocks against Murray were always clear. After declining numbers in Pittsburgh and a pair of injury-hampered seasons in Ottawa, Murray’s move to Toronto was met with a fair bit of scrutiny from the jump. It’s important to remember the stakes — the oft-discussed string of first-round exits, the likelihood of Toronto’s front office being turned over, as it has been. It was vital that the club found a game-changing solution in net, especially with Campbell set to leave. They chose Murray, betting on him finding the form that earned him two Cup rings. It seemed within reach if all went to plan on the injury front. In the end, though, those injuries caught up with Murray again, and his first season in Toronto wound up fairly similar to his final one in Ottawa. Samsonov proved a worthy replacement, but it’s the nearly $5 million in cap space that Murray occupied, and the one remaining year on his deal the club has to now deal with, that made the move a miss.