Quick Shifts: Too early to panic about Maple Leafs’ goaltending?

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Matt Murray reaches out to glove a shot in the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Dallas Stars, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, in Dallas. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Whoa, Canada!

1. “Bad game by me. Again.”

Such was the admission by Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov Tuesday in his post-loss scrum.

The affable and now fallible Samsonov was fresh off his fourth consecutive sub-.900 performance but just his first loss at home.

Samsonov is an endearing, good-natured sort, fast with a smile and a joke. He has also admitted to mental struggles and will openly carry the burden of a bad night. He had a fabulous November and now he’s starting to slip.

He’s precisely the kind of guy you want to believe in, and at times you question how much he believes in himself.

No wonder locals have begun labelling Samsonov “the Russian Jack Campbell.”

What’s concerning here, as the Maple Leafs stare at a weekend back-to-back (albeit against inferior competition), is that Samsonov’s slide has coinciding with a similar dip in play by Matt Murray, his more handsomely paid and more accomplished tandem mate.

Samsonov gets the nod Saturday versus Detroit; Murray should go Sunday in Philadelphia.

Combined, Toronto’s goalies have the NHL’s worst save percentage since Dec. 15 (.852).

The Maple Leafs’ team save percentage, which had soared as high as second-best leaguewide, has regressed all the way to 12th (.906).

To be fair, regression was to be expected, and this version of Toronto’s goaltending is still outperforming last season’s (.900, 21st overall).

But Campbell’s midseason fall from all-star awesomeness in 2021-22 is triggering the fan base.

Since Christmas, Murray was mediocre in Arizona, superb in Colorado, and dreadful in Thursday’s 5-1 pasting by the Seattle. His four goals allowed during a 10-minute second period flurry essentially ended the game early.

Yet coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t pull his starter.

“I thought he deserved the opportunity to stay in there and fight,” Keefe told reporters post-game.

When Murray allowed another one in the third, the Bronx cheers kicked in.

“There were some funny goals going in there, but we need our players in the first period to make a big play, take control of the game. And you need your goaltender to make a big save, give us life too. We didn’t get that,” Keefe said.

To be sure, the Maple Leafs are deep and defensively committed enough to overcome some goaltending inconsistencies. The sky is not falling.

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Context is the key here.

Zoom out, and everything Maple Leafs is viewed through the prism of the postseason.

Watching Samsonov and Murray struggle for a few weeks, one can’t help but compare Toronto’s goaltending situation to that of Tampa Bay and Boston.

Do you see either of the Maple Leafs’ netminders outduelling Andrei Vasilevskiy or Linus Ullmark over a seven-game sample when the games matter most?

2. Wearing a baggy throwback Red Sox uniform and catcher’s mask to his post-win Winter Classic press conference, Ullmark swung his left leg onto the podium to show off the spiky 1950s cleats he found to complete his ’fit.

“Watch out,” he smiled.

The Swede happily confessed that his connection to baseball is “zero.”

But? “I like to dress up for these special occasions.”

And the Boston Bruins netminder has yearned for a chance to play a game that counts in the out-of-doors.

“It’s just pure, true joy and happiness afterward,” Ullmark said of his 26-save performance in the 2-1 win at Fenway. “You know, it’s something I’ve dreamt about for [15] years, ever since I saw the first one from home in Sweden. I was always very jealous of the people that would play before me and had the opportunity.”

The Penguins pulled the goalie and pressed to tie the Classic, Evgeni Malkin even firing one past Ullmark a half-second after the final buzzer sounded.

Ullmark had to spot pucks through shadows and glare. He conceded the play in front of him looked anarchic.

“But for some reason, it felt like we had it under control,” Ullmark said.

“My job is to stop pucks. So, it’s kinda easy for me to narrow [my focus] down sometimes.”

Ullmark was justly named to his first all-star game and is running away with the Vezina, handily leading the NHL in record (21-1-1), goals-against average (1.86) and save percentage (.939).

“His consistency – elite consistency – has been unreal,” marvels coach Jim Montgomery. “He gives us the ability to win every night.”

“He’s insane,” enthuses Nick Foligno.

“You know when the goalie is in the zone by just how he calms everything down, right? He’s not making these crazy, acrobatic saves. He’s making everything look easy. And when I see a goalie doing that, I think it just runs through the whole room. It really makes every guy calm down.”

3. Mark Giordano, the NHL’s oldest active defenceman, chuckles when you ask him about Joe Pavelski, the NHL’s oldest active forward.

“He gave me a lot of minuses,” Giordano says, thinking back to all those Sharks-Flames battles in the Pacific Division.

Giordano shakes his head in wonderment as he talks about point shots flying two feet wide of the net that his net-front check would somehow reach and deflect into the net.

Pavelski’s new one-year extension with Dallas takes him through his age 39 season, and he’s still a top-line contributor and nearly a point-per-game threat.

He’s already on his third contract with Dallas. This after San Jose bet on Father Time instead of a franchise icon in 2019.

Pavelski takes pride in proving the Sharks wrong on that wager.

“I take big-time pride in it. I want to keep playing, and I want to play at a high level, and I want my minutes, and I want the opportunity to be out there at the end of the game. That’s kind of what keeps you driving is, you want a taste of those kinds of opportunities,” Pavelski said, during a conversation with myself and couple other reporters last season. “It’s no fun watching someone else try it. That’s what’s fun. That’s what drives you.

“So, yeah. San Jose made its decision a while back, and we’ll see how this one looks. But right now, you try to take care of your business and just enjoy playing and enjoy being around the guys. Really thinking more about the team than that about yourself.

“Hockey has a good way of humbling you at times, and a good way of repaying you if you do things the right way and just always trying to be a good teammate and hope for the best.”

Pavelski’s longevity is even more remarkable when you consider he was drafted in the seventh round. He views himself as a message for future late-rounders.

“It doesn’t matter what pick you were. I’ve seen enough first-rounders, second-rounders never make it or get the chance. It’s about keep trying to improve every day. The draft is the draft. It’s just the start of it, and the real work comes in the journey of trying to get better,” Pavelski said.

“For me, it worked out great. It didn’t let me take a deep breath — didn’t let me think I was somewhere. I learned at an early age the gym was gonna have to be my friend.”

The usual knock on Pavelski is his foot speed. He adapted accordingly.

“Speed, strength — some of those things were never my strengths. What I have with my skating and certain areas of my game, it’s about maintaining that and not losing it. There’s definitely areas where it’s gotten better as I’ve gotten older, I think. Like reaction times in corners, getting out of [close] quarters. Around the net. One of my strengths is the mental aspect of the game, being able to read plays,” he explained.

“I believe I’m one of the faster slow guys out there.”

4. Michael Bunting, an impending UFA, and the Maple Leafs have reportedly begun preliminary conversations on a potential extension.

Not a big deal, but it is something.

In recent seasons, GM Kyle Dubas has been content to let expiring players secondary to his core (Jack Campbell, Zach Hyman, Ilya Mikheyev, Frederik Andersen, et al.) skate out their contracts without much in-season conversation.

Bunting — one of the NHL’s greatest bargains — has rebounded passionately from a ho-hum start and is well on pace to post back-to-back 20-goal, 60-point seasons.

At age 27 and with career earnings totalling $2.43 million, this summer marks his one chance to secure life-changing money.

The Scarborough native is besties with Auston Matthews and contributes meaningfully to the top line. The Maple Leafs aren’t exactly deep on the left wing, and Bunting can’t hide his hometown love.

Plus, the cap ceiling is going up significantly in a couple years, and there should be a path here for Bunting to give a little on the AAV in exchange for term and upfront bonuses.

Our hunch: He stays.

5. General managers needed to wipe the drool off their chins while soaking in Connor Bedard’s 23-point golden fortnight at the world juniors.

To think: the 17-year-old phenom will be eligible for two more of these tournaments.

No chance the lucky occupier of his NHL rights lets him go, though.

With the trade deadline less than two months away, it’s time to Shed Hard for Bedard™.

We’re talking to you, Kyle Davidson and Pat Verbeek.

And you, Kent Hughes and Bill Armstrong.

You too, Chuck Fletcher, Jarmo Kekalainen, Patrik Alvin, and Mike Grier.

Clear the decks. Make this a deadline to remember.

Start your fourth-string goalie.

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Remember: Under the new lottery rules, only the worst 11 teams have a chance of winning the 2023 first-overall pick. No sense in finishing kinda bad.

It’s time to get shameless and go full 2015 Tim Murray.

Tank with all your might.

This kid is the truth.

6. Fourteen forwards, two goalies, and zero defencemen were named to the Eastern Conference all-stars by the league.

Of note, Philadelphia’s representative is Kevin Hayes, who will go to his first all-star weekend after spending time in his coach’s doghouse.

“It’s a cool situation for me because — not to get emotional — it’s probably the only thing my brother, since he stopped playing hockey, wanted me to accomplish,” Hayes told reporters, referencing the late Jimmy Hayes, who died in 2021.

“I never honestly thought it would happen, but it did.”

Contrast that response with that of Flyers coach John Tortorella, who was asked if he felt the team’s leading scorer, Travis Konency, also deserves a trip to South Florida in February.

“I don’t even worry about that s—. The whole game, the whole weekend, I think it’s turned into a… well, I’ll just leave it at that. I really don’t care,” Tortorella said.

Asked a follow-up about Konency, Tortorella said: “I really don’t care about all-star stuff, OK?”

And walked away from the podium.

“It’s cool,” said Toronto’s Mitchell Marner, named to his second one. “A couple things you dream of as a kid playing in this league, winning that Stanley Cup, and trying to get to that All-Star Game. So, it’s a cool accomplishment.”

At least a few defencemen qualified in the West.

Erik Karlsson, invited for the seventh time, will rep the Pacific, while Seth Jones, Josh Morrissey and Cale Makar were all named to the D-heavy Central squad.

Colorado’s Makar, who famously declined a power play last month, continued his Lady Byng campaign by making a case to not be the Avalanche representative.

“Obviously very honoured. I’d think that at least a couple more guys from our team should be there as well,” Makar told reporters. “I don’t know if I should’ve been the first pick. Obviously, Mikko [Ratanen] has been carrying us the whole year. But it is what it is.”

7. J.J. Watt’s disgust at teammate Zaven Collins’s hockey ignorance is fun television:

(A Wisconsin native, Watt laced up skates at age 3. His hockey background is legit.)

8. One had to cherish being inside Fenway Park for the 2023 Winter Classic, the first to feature three 1,000-point scorers: future no-brainer Hall of Famers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Patrice Bergeron. (Brad Marchand, at 828 points, should get there too.)

Crosby reflected on the Bruins’ forever duo, with whom he has celebrated Team Canada gold and has a personal connection.

A 17-year-old Crosby roomed with Bergeron at the golden 2005 world juniors.

“He’s been so consistent. He came into the league a responsible player at 18. Most guys that age, you’re trying to figure out the game defensively. He just had such a maturity to his game. It kinda fit his personality,” Crosby says. “He’s always been ready for whatever that next step is. Great leader. Great person.”

Crosby trains with fellow Nova Scotian Marchand every summer. He believes the talented shift-disturber doesn’t get enough credit for his work ethic or perseverance through injuries; he also notes Marchand’s track record of improving every off-season, adding layers to his game amidst young, fast competition.

“Awesome to play with and not somebody you want to play against,” says Crosby, flashing a smile. “He plays with a certain intensity.” That’s a diplomatic way to phrase it.

“I’ve had a lot of fun playing with him and not as much playing against him.”

Courtesy: Boston Bruins

9. It would be difficult to watch Canada’s ride to world junior gold this week — nail-biting, drama-filled, storybook — and still think its NHL-level players would have been better served by playing a few more shifts for their club teams.

Brandt Clarke (L.A. Kings), Dylan Guenther (Arizona Coyotes), and captain Shane Wright (Seattle Kraken) were all integral to Thursday’s thrilling finale. It’s no stretch to suggest the home team doesn’t accomplish the mission without them.

I’m a firm believer that these high-stakes tournaments, even if they don’t end in joy, help build better pros and serve these youngsters in the long run.

(So, how come tanking Montreal did not loan rookie Juraj Slafkovsky to Slovakia — which came one Connor Bedard highlight away from the medal round?)

Talking to Wright at the draft, he made it clear that he wished to rep his country at the August tournament in Edmonton but understood that, because it conflicted with NHL training camp prep, it wasn’t going to happen.

The world juniors had long been a dream of Wright’s.

He said he was felt “disappointment” and “sadness” that the January 2022 edition had been postponed. He was trying to take solace in knowing that he had at least made the national team.

What a wonderful moment for the birthday boy, after such a frustrating ’22 that included a shocking tumble in the draft and getting scratched and demoted in Seattle.

The Kraken returned Wright to Kingston post-tournament, but he will reportedly be traded prior to a competitor prior to the OHL deadline.

10. Sure, you can debate whether his reaction is a by-product of his shrewd media training and the ingraining of team-first hockey culture. But I absolutely loved MVP Bedard’s “I don’t want to talk about myself” response following the tournament win:

Later, speaking to reporters in Halifax, Bedard doubled down on downplaying his record-breaking individual performance:

“No one’s going to remember that from our group in 20 years. We’re going to look at our gold medal. We’re not going to look at stats or anything. We’re going to appreciate what we did together. That’s what matters.”

Like many of you, I took a two-week crash course in Bedard’s full game. The reports of his elite shot and big-moment desire are accurate.

But my eyes were opened by his vision and otherworldly passing ability:

11. That the Vancouver Canucks inquired about a trade for Alexis Lafrenière makes a ton of sense. Lafrenière’s former agent is Canucks assistant general manager Emilie Castonguay, his price and age align with Vancouver’s needs, and it’s no secret that New York is getting antsy for the 21-year-old to take the next step.

Not all success is linear, but it is certainly unusual for a No. 1-overall pick to score fewer goals in Year 3 than he did in Year 1. Lafrenière lit the lamp 12 times as a rookie. He’s on pace for just 10 this season.

New York isn’t bailing yet, but Lafrenière’s entry-level deal ends July 1. He’ll have little leverage when it comes time to negotiate a bridge deal. With no arbitration rights, this relationship could be tested further.

Feels like a subject we’ll be revisiting in the off-season.

12. A triple deflection: Click a stick, ricochet off a knee, bonk off a helmet… nothing but net.

And there’s your game-winning goal.

Never underestimate the role of randomness and pure luck in our wonderfully chaotic sport.

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