‘Who gets the net?’: Maple Leafs up for challenge of carrying three goalies

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks about the return of goaltender Joseph Woll and his plan to ease him back into action and discusses not having any issues carrying all three of Woll, Ilya Samsonov and Martin Jones.

TORONTO — Adin Hill, the most recent goaltender to hoist the Stanley Cup, has been there. 

He has lived what all three goalies currently on the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ roster — Ilya Samsonov, Joseph Woll and Martin Jones — are living.

Hill has been the starter and the backup. He’s been the third-stringer, and he’s been waived.

“At times it can be a little frustrating, right? If you’re the third guy, like I was for a while,” Hill said Monday inside the Leafs practice facility, following a Golden Knights workout. 

“Sometimes it’s tough to get your reps in practice and that. But I think it brings a good, healthy competition to the group.”

By recalling Woll to the big club, Leafs GM Brad Treliving has crowded a crease that has been a constant and often turbulent source of storytelling this season.

No doubt, this is the wisest option considering the volatility of the position and the fact that Jones ($875,000) could well get scooped off the wire if waived again.

Sheldon Keefe is fine with carrying all three on the NHL roster.

“I wouldn’t have any problem with that. I think we can manage that,” the coach said. “But that, of course, will be up to Tree managing the roster.”

Third-stringer Jones (11-7-1) was stellar in January, when the club desperately needed him to relieve the injured Woll and struggling Samsonov. But he did not participate in practice Monday because Samsonov is Tuesday’s projected starter against Vegas and Woll needed a full workload to get up to NHL speed.

Samsonov (14-4-6) has turned his narrative around since clearing waivers and has now won six consecutive games, his longest such stretch as a Leaf.

And Woll (8-5-1) didn’t miss a beat Friday, making 36 saves in a 4-1 Marlies victory over Laval. This despite 78 days of ankle rehabbing, book reading and piano playing between game action.

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The 25-year-old was anxious heading into the first real test of his high-ankle sprain but found the intense game — Laval crashed the crease and peppered him with shots — a positive final test, both mentally and physically, on his road back to the NHL.

“One thing I’ve learned over my years is nerves are a natural part of the game. I’ve learned how to manage them a lot better. Yeah, definitely after being off for a couple of months, [I was nervous]. But I try to use it to my advantage, and it helps me get in the action and get focused,” Woll explained.

“The aim in your rehab is to try to get to a spot where you feel comfortable and you don’t have to think about it.”

Woll assumed the same process in prepping for his AHL start as he would in the NHL. His ankle “felt great,” and once some time ticked off the clock, he was “able to go on autopilot and just play.”

That’s encouraging news for Leafs fans, as Woll had seized the No. 1 job prior to December’s injury and still maintains the best save percentage of the trio (.916).

“I’m really looking forward to helping this team out,” Woll said. 

“It’s been a bit of a hiatus, but I’m excited to be back here.”

For now, Jones will take a back seat, despite winning his past two starts. But the veteran has served as the quiet, consummate pro all season, from getting demoted to the Marlies in October to stabilizing a shaky net around Christmastime.

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Keefe sees “tremendous value” in keeping Jones around, and both Woll and Samsonov are quick to sing his praises.

“He’s a great guy to have around the room and obviously has a lot of experience in this league,” Woll said. “He’s a pretty easygoing guy. And I think that’s really important for the position — to be the same every day you come in, regardless of the result. It’s a long year, and there’s a lot of ups and downs.”

Increasingly, carrying three goaltenders is becoming more common around the NHL, as several teams have favoured the benefits of depth and internal competition over the risks of letting a goaltender get stale or disgruntled.

Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy has been there. He knows the challenge Keefe and the Leafs will face as long as they employ three goalies to stop one puck.

“Well, it’s getting the appropriate amount of starts for everybody, right? Because you just feel like there’s not enough to go around. Practice — who gets the net? How do you split the other net?” Cassidy said.

“Just keeping them sharp is usually the toughest thing when you have three.”

One-Timers: Timothy Liljegren got “banged up” in Saturday’s win over Colorado and is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury…. Mark Giordano, who had been away from the club until Monday grieving the death of his father, will return to action if Liljegren can’t play…. Keefe on Matt Murray, rehabbing from hip surgery: “He’s making great progress. He’s seeing pucks now.”… Calle Järnkrok (broken knuckle) is ramping toward a return to practice but is still days away…. Noah Gregor appears headed for his fourth healthy scratch in five games.

Maple Leafs projected lines Tuesday vs. Vegas Golden Knights

Knies – Matthews – Marner 
Bertuzzi – Domi – Nylander 
McMann – Tavares – Robertson 
Hölmberg – Kämpf – Reaves 

Brodie – McCabe 
Rielly – Benoit 
Giordano – Lagesson

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