Hello again, and welcome back to the latest edition of the THN Hot Seat file, an ongoing collection of THN.com columns in which we pick out one member of every NHL team who’ll be working under intense pressure in the upcoming season. Our selection for the Hot Seat can be an NHL player, GM, head coach, or team owner.
Today, we’re looking at the Toronto Maple Leafs.
MAPLE LEAFS HOT SEAT: (TIE) KYLE DUBAS, GENERAL MANAGER; AND MATT MURRAY, GOALTENDER
WHY: Because of their position as an Original Six franchise and their support from a gigantic, rabid fan base, the Maple Leafs are always under the microscope, either as individuals or as an organization. And because they haven’t been able to convert their recent regular season successes into playoff wins, the heat has cranked up on the group.
Whether you like the Leafs or loathe them, you have to be honest and admit they’ve been built into a seriously potent offensive team. That’s a credit to GM Kyle Dubas, team president Brendan Shanahan and the rest of Toronto’s drafting-and-development team. They’ve got terrific depth at forward, and they’ve got a top-four defense corps that may not have a Norris Trophy candidate amongst them, but that does have a solid, experienced unit.
Unfortunately for Leafs fans, Toronto’s goaltending has been a messy carousel in recent years. When the Leafs became a consistent playoff team, Dubas initially tied his wagon to veteran Frederik Andersen, but Andersen was unable to steal wins for the Buds, and had issues staying healthy. Dubas then pushed his chips behind Jack Campbell, a battler of a netminder who shone in short stretches, but who couldn’t earn enough confidence from management to score a long-term contract extension.
And that brings us to the present day. Dubas used his limited salary cap space this summer to acquire veteran goalie Matt Murray from Ottawa, and he then signed unrestricted free agent Ilya Samsonov. Murray has a championship pedigree from his years with the Pittsburgh Penguins, while Samsonov was, not all that long ago, regarded as an up-and-coming goaltender. But there was a reason why both Murray and Samsonov were available: Murray was a washout with the Senators after signing a four-year, $20-million deal in 2020, getting waived and dumped into the American League for a while in 2021-22; and Samsonov’s individual numbers with the Washington Capitals got worse in both of the past two years, to the point he posed a gaudy 3.02 Goals-Against Average and .896 Save Percentage in 44 games last season.
Dubas did persuade Sens GM Pierre Dorion to retain one-quarter of Murray’s contract (which expires after the 2023-24 campaign), but unless Murray improves on the 3.05 G.A.A. and .906 SP this coming season, it won’t matter how much money the Leafs are paying him. Any kind of lengthy letdown may not only sink Murray’s future with Toronto (and as an NHLer, for that matter), but he could well take down Dubas with him.
Even if Murray fails and Samsonov steps up and claims the starter’s job in Toronto as his own, the optics of the Leafs paying Murray $4.687 million in a backup role will be rightfully outrageous. By next summer, Murray could be bought out of the final year of his current deal, but that will still hamstring Toronto’s efforts to get better.
When your goalie is thriving, they make everyone else on their team look better, and that will be true for Murray, Samsonov and the Leafs this year. Toronto has four veterans – Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin and Mark Giordano – who will earn praise if they limit opponents’ chances around the Leafs’ net. But if Murray and Samsonov buckle, the pressure on everyone will ratchet up significantly. The offense will be pressed to produce more goals-for, and the defense will take heat for not making the lives of Toronto’s goalies easier.
But most importantly, the Leafs’ goalies will be a weigh station on Dubas’ tenure. If neither Samsonov nor Murray proves they can thrive behind this veteran Toronto team, it will appear that Dubas was throwing whatever he could against the wall when it comes to goaltending, and couldn’t make any of it stick. We’ve seen how star NHL goalies such as Andrei Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin can impose their will on games, but we have not seen much of that from Dubas’ choice in goalies.
In sum, Dubas’ future in Toronto is now tightly-tied to his goaltenders. There’s no more room for the “they’re growing into their new role” mentality. It’s about results for the Leafs, and if Murray and Samsonov can’t get it done, we may see a new GM in Toronto given their shot to pick the right goalie and start a new era for the Leafs.