What Ilya Samsonov’s arbitration ruling means for the Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov during an NHL hockey game against the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal, Saturday, January 21, 2023. (Graham Hughes/CP)

TORONTO — No, this is not the ideal way to do business.

But when a general manager takes over a team in salary cap hell and a goaltender with pedigree bets on himself and makes good, this is the result.

On Sunday, two days following his arbitration hearing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ilya Samsonov was awarded a one-year, $3.55-million contract by mediator Stephen Raymond for the 2023-24 season. 

The deal signifies the first completed arbitration case for the franchise in a decade and walks the affable netminder straight to unrestricted free agency on July 1, at age 27.

With promising rookie Joseph Woll, 25, now unexempt for waivers and a bargain at a $766,667 AAV through 2024-25, Samsonov’s forced deal locks in a reasonably priced goalie tandem for the Maple Leafs — provided Matt Murray’s $4.69 million is cleared off the roster.

A decision on Murray’s fate takes on fresh urgency because the Samsonov decision triggers a second 48-hour buyout window for GM Brad Treliving to use.

A buyout of Murray’s final year — ruled healthy but passed over to play a minute in Toronto’s second-round series loss to the Florida Panthers in May — would cost Toronto just $687,500 against its cap in 2023-24. That figure spikes to $2 million in 2024-25, when the ceiling is expected to rise by approximately $4 million.

Buyouts are always a last resort, which is why Treliving stayed silent during the initial buyout window in June.

Murray could be packaged in a trade with a sweetener (see: Petr Mrazek), though he still holds a 10-team no-trade list, which he used in the 2022 off-season to block a deal from Ottawa to Buffalo.

There is also a theory that the oft-injured Murray — who suffered a concussion, plus ankle and abductor ailments with the Leafs — could join Jake Muzzin on long-term injured reserve and provide financial relief that way. 

Yet upon the Leafs’ elimination, Murray proclaimed himself healthy and ready for action. He’s only 29 and is believed to want to keep his career rolling. (Teams are not permitted to buy out injured players.)

Back to Samsonov and the ugliness of arbitration.

That Samsonov’s $4.9 million (unreasonably high) ask and Toronto’s (unreasonably low) submission of $2.6 million opened a large gulf is not uncommon in hockey cases.

Following an exhaustive and, at times, emotional proceeding, the arbitrator typically throws a dart in the middle. In this case, he leaned a touch toward the club offer. (The baseball model of picking one side or the other forces more genuine figures to be submitted.)

Still, it’s unfortunate an agreement couldn’t be made Friday morning, before Samsonov had to hear all the reasons why the Leafs brass wanted to give him the tiniest raise possible.

All the goalie did was backstop the Leafs to their first playoff series victory in 19 years, vastly outperform his $1.8-million salary, take over the No. 1 role, post career highs in wins (27) and save percentage (.919), and become a new dad.

“The people, this city is amazing,” Samsonov said in May, when he was preparing to join family in Miami for the off-season.

“This year was better. More control. Like, I’m not a lot of up and down. More stay strong. I liked this season. But I want to get better.”

Business never personal, as EPMD would say.

Going deeper than one year with Samsonov, which was the player’s preference, would have ratcheted up his AAV. 

And as Leaf Nation knows, every penny from 2024-25 on must be pinched for the raises Treliving has been busy negotiating for core forwards Auston Matthews and William Nylander.

So, add Samsonov onto the long list of impending UFAs set to dress for Toronto this fall: Matthews, Nylander, Tyler Bertuzzi, John Klingberg, Max Domi, Sam Lafferty, T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano, and (for now) Murray.

The hope is they will all be partially inspired by their expiring contracts and play with urgency and passion. The danger is they could feel like mercenaries who must look out for their own best interests.

Such is the crush of the flat cap and a handful of handsomely paid super-duper stars.

Until their next move — rest assured, a couple are coming — the Maple Leafs sit well over the salary cap, carrying a league-high $95.88 million in salaries before buyouts, LTIR moves and waived fringe players, according to CapFriendly.com.

Something’s gotta give.

The good news Sunday is that Samsonov’s number is a friendly one.


Peeking ahead to the summer of 2024, another strong showing by Samsonov could put him behind Connor Hellebuyck as the most coveted goalie on the open market.

Then, surely, he could get the payday — and the term — he is hunting for.

And the Maple Leafs may not be able to afford it.

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