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The Maple Leafs Made an Era-Defining Bet in Net

Let's take a look at the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending situation and determine if it will work in their favor.
Matt Murray

Breakups are never easy. But if there were ever a player you could count on for an amicable split, it's Jack Campbell. 

The Toronto Maple Leafs officially moved on from their affable netminder on Wednesday afternoon, bidding farewell as Campbell cashed in on what will likely be the most lucrative deal of his career with the Edmonton Oilers. 

According to reports, the Maple Leafs didn't even really offer Campbell a contract at all outside of a low-ball pitch way back in October. The plan all along seemed to hinge (pun intended) on playing out the final days of this relationship before scouring the dating market for younger candidates in the summer. 

Well, the Leafs just went speed dating and returned home with two new partners in Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov. 

Let's just say there's a lot to talk about with these two. 

The rationale behind placing the fate of the Leafs' goaltending in the hands of a 28-year-old with health and consistency issues and a 25-year-old former first-round pick whose sub-.900 save percentage last year led to the team that drafted him cutting him loose boils down to an age-old dating adage: 

"I can fix him!" 

This front office is choosing to see the talent living in their new tandem rather than the flaws. And, believe me, there's plenty of both. 

Murray, whose contract is the longest and most expensive of the two, obviously comes saddled with the most risk. The 28-year-old has failed to post a save percentage above .910 since the 2018-19 season and arrives in Toronto with a list of health troubles a mile long. That's a tough pill to swallow on the surface. But, and this is important, Murray probably couldn't even hear the qualms you have about him if he wanted to due to the "two Stanley Cup rings plugging his ear". 

So, just think about that. And google the Patrick Roy clip, it rocks. 

Still, it's been a while since Murray has been a top-15 starter in the NHL. Just think about how different your life was back in April of 2019. That's an entire pandemic and MCU phase ago, with Murray's play and ability to stay on the ice for even scant stretches of time having completely bottomed out since, ultimately leading to him being dumped on the Leafs for future considerations. 

At a cap hit of $4.687 million for the next two seasons, Murray's failure alone has the potential to act as the poison pill that topples the entire Maple Leafs front office. 

But, context is important, too. 

Let's take a look at where the goalie market was when the Leafs pulled the trigger on the Murray deal a few days ago. 

- Marc-Andre Fleury had just re-signed in Minnesota, taking Toronto's top option off the board. 

- Ville Husso also found a new home in Detroit after the Red Wings surrendered a draft pick for his negotiating rights and gave him a shiny new deal. 

- Alexandar Georgiev, a goalie most people seem to forget has been quite bad for the bulk of his career, was snatched up by the Colorado Avalanche for multiple draft picks and then inked a contract he very likely may never live up to. 

- As a result of this, Jack Campbell's leverage grew exponentially. 

That left very few options in both free agency and the trade market for Dubas & Co. to pursue. Or, at the very least, few good ones. 

But that didn't stop them from trying. As July 13th approached, word came in that Toronto offered Darcy Kuemper, a 32-year-old weeks removed from a Stanley Cup but who also had to make multiple daily trips to an optometrist throughout the playoffs to re-train his eye so he could see the pucks being shot at him, a long-term deal at $6 million per, which he ultimately turned down.  

Could the Leafs have upped their offer to make it one Kuemper simply couldn't refuse? Sure. But should they have? Absolutely not. Are you crazy? 

Goaltending is a notoriously unpredictable profession. But the one thing that has largely stayed true amidst that chaos is the aging curve, which tends to see a goalie's performance start to plummet once they reach the other side of 30. 

And that's usually if they have two working eyes, too. 

So, with Kuemper a no-go, where else could the Leafs have turned? Cam Talbot has been a popular talking point after the veteran was shipped to the Ottawa Senators for prospect Filip Gustavsson on Tuesday. Would he have been a better option? 

Maybe. I guess. But there's also the nugget of Talbot's middling .911 save percentage last season accompanied by an expected goals rate that was low enough to suggest Minnesota's vaunted defense deserves most of the credit for his success. Factor in how Talbot is also a 35-year-old with one year left on his deal at roughly $1 million less than Murray's current cap hit, and the choice becomes less obvious. 

Do you bank on two seasons of a 28-year-old two-time Stanley Cup winner rebounding with a fresh start at a slightly higher price tag, or one year of a slightly cheaper 35-year-old veteran with a similarly small sample size as a full-time starter and underlying numbers to suggest he's a product of the team in front of him. 

Honestly, neither option is great. But if I, personally, had to choose one, I'd take my chances with what's behind Door Number One. 

Samsonov, on the other hand, is just gravy. 

You could certainly do worse in the insurance department than a 25-year-old with first-round pedigree, a dash of prior success at the NHL level, and a chip on his shoulder whose track record as a teenager in the KHL mirrors that of Igor Shesterkin. 

Worst case, Samsonov struggles as he did last year in Washington and hightails it out of Toronto once the season is over. Best case, though, sees Samsonov realize his potential surrounded by the Leafs' army of goaltending and development coaches, give the team quality goaltending at a mere $1.8 million price tag, and emerge as the franchise's long-term answer in net. 

Frankly, both options are just as likely at the moment. Even if Samsonov doesn't thrive and simply tops out as a low .910s puck-stopper, he'll be exactly what the Leafs got in Campbell last season for roughly the same price they paid him and at a fraction of what he's making in Edmonton. 

What has Leafs fans and pundits alike in fits over Toronto's goaltending situation is the uncertainty. We all like to know whether our favorite character is going to die before we spend an entire season invested in them. But that's not how sports works. 

The Maple Leafs are taking a massive, era-defining swing on two young-ish goaltenders with previously successful track records re-gaining their form. It might work. It might not. But, at the very least, it will reveal the future of this organization soon enough. 

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