"I don't know anything about Murray, guys," Mitch Marner told reporters as they began to circle him in the locker room following morning skate on Saturday, anticipating the questions to come.
"I don't have anything to tell you!"
Even the Maple Leafs players know how hot a topic the team's goaltending is within their media market – perhaps now so more than ever. It's not a surprise, really. A complete renovation of the goalie depth ahead of a pivotal season brings with it a certain level of scrutiny, as the Leafs' new tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov must now operate under a spotlight that has truly never shone brighter.
When they're good, the cheers are heightened. When they're bad, the criticism is deafening.
And when they get injured, well, the speculation swirls at an unprecedented rate.
That's exactly what happened at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday morning, as Murray took the ice for morning skate as the projected starter ahead of Toronto's matchup against his former team later that night, only to leave soon after following a quick consultation with goaltending coach Curtis Sanford.
This was not a planned exit. Murray appeared to favor his left side as he headed down the tunnel four minutes into the full-team skate, with Sheldon Keefe later confirming that Murray had indeed felt discomfort in his groin during drills and was undergoing further evaluation.
Keefe didn't definitively rule Murray out, however, explaining that if the medical staff cleared the 28-year-old ahead of that night's game, he would ultimately play. But with Samsonov also being told to prepare as if he were the starter, Murray's status has been cast in serious doubt.
As for what comes next? Well, here's where things get tricky.
The Maple Leafs can't simply call someone up to serve as Samsonov's understudy in the event that Murray is unable to go – for a few reasons.
Namely, Erik Kallgren, the team's third goalie, was injured during the Toronto Marlies' season opener versus the Rochester Americans on Friday night, leaving the game with an undisclosed injury never to return. Kallgren's status, according to Keefe, is currently undetermined, as the 26-year-old is still being evaluated by the team's medical staff, which effectively rules him out of game action indefinitely. If Kallgren were to be cleared in time to suit up tonight, Murray's injury would need to be serious enough for the Leafs to place him on LTIR in order to gain the cap space to call Kallgren up, therein preventing Murray from returning to action for a minimum of 10 games or 24 days.
If this is a simple groin tweak, that's not possible.
The man who replaced Kallgren last night is Dylan Ferguson, who is the theoretical fourth option but also happens to be with the Marlies on an amateur tryout offer and is not under contract to the Toronto Maple Leafs organization in an official capacity. Even if the Leafs wanted to upgrade Fergsuon's tryout agreement to a formal contract in order to dress him as their backup, they couldn't. The club is currently at the maximum 50 allowable contract slots filled, preventing any future signings, not just Ferguson, barring a corresponding move.
And, to make matters even more complicated, Ferguson's resume of professional game experience would make him ineligible for an NHL ATO.
Of course, this wouldn't be an issue if not for the fact that the only goaltenders signed to NHL deals in the Leafs' pipeline, outside of their big-league tandem, are Kallgren, Joseph Woll (who is also injured), and 2022 fourth-round pick Denis Hildeby – the latter of whom is currently in Sweden on loan to SHL club Farjestad.
Age and inexperience aside, even if the terms of Hildeby's loan agreement allowed the Leafs to pluck him out of there on a whim, the eight-hour flight from Sweden to Toronto wouldn't get Hildeby to the rink in time for puck drop.
So, that's a no-go, as well.
Now, you'd think the NHL would have a fail-safe in place for teams that run into these types of last-minute hiccups. Goalies get injured all the time, after all. It comes with the territory. And given how tight the salary cap landscape is across the league, there must be some sort of relief plan.
Nope. Not as it pertains to the Leafs, at least.
An emergency recall for tonight's game only applies to teams carrying a 23-player roster. The Leafs' whopping four dollars of cap space has forced them to carry just 20 to start the year, leaving them with no scratches and no ability to make a same-day recall under the current conditions.
And those 50 contract slots? They represent a hard cap with no exceptions, even in the event of injury. In order to sign a backup for tonight, the Leafs would have to move someone out, likely in the form of pawning away a signed player for future considerations, and also register both that trade and the contract for Murray's replacement with the league office in time for puck drop.
All of that gives the Leafs' front office few options and even less time with which to choose one.
So, the most feasible course of action becomes a familiar one: Pluck an EBUG off the street, sign them to an ATO, dress them as the backup, and pray Samsonov makes it through all 60 minutes unscathed.
The Leafs did this exact same thing almost exactly one year ago today, trotting University of Toronto netminder Alex Bishop as their backup on Oct. 16, 2021, after Petr Mrazek injured, you guessed it, his groin ahead of a Saturday night matchup versus, you guessed it, the Ottawa Senators.
Poetry can be cruel sometimes. And right now, the Maple Leafs are getting clobbered by it, showing the trials and tribulations that come with walking a salary cap tightrope as perilous as theirs.
Stay tuned as this story develops.