Maple Leafs Notebook: Why Samsonov chose Toronto

TORONTO – He can laugh about it now, but Ilya Samsonov’s starts against the Toronto Maple Leafs last season were decidedly more horror than comedy.

“I just remember how we played the Leafs, I probably went to the bench after the first period. All three games,” the new guy chuckles.

“Everybody knows this is the best team for scoring goals.”

In truth, Samsonov only faced his high-octane new team twice in 2021-22. But if you surrender seven goals and get yanked well before the second buzzer in decisive losses, surely two nights can feel like more.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Following Thursday’s first official practice with the Maple Leafs — a crowded, high-tempo marathon session that made use of all four pads at the Ford Performance Center and required multiple floods — Samsonov was upbeat during his first meeting with Toronto reporters.

“I really like it. I’m so excited,” Samsonov said. “Everybody here wants to win the Stanley Cup, and it’s a good opportunity for me.”

So good, in fact, Samsonov says he turned down longer-term offers before inking a one-year, $1.8-million pact with the Leafs after a successful pitch by GM Kyle Dubas.

“It was good for me and good for the team,” Samsonov reasons.

“He really wanted it to be a one-year kind of show-me, bet-on-yourself type deal, which is not always common with players coming off of this shock of being non-QO’d when he wasn’t expecting it,” Dubas said. “That was impressive to me.”

Samsonov should begin the season as 1B to Matt Murray’s 1A, and the two have already struck up a friendship, arriving in town well before camp’s opening.

The 25-year-old deferred his preferred sweater number (30) to the two-time Cup champion, instead opting for 35, his original number in AHL Hershey.

But given Murray’s injury history and Samsonov’s hunger, a healthy battle for work should ensue.

“Both have shown they can carry the load, and we need to get them both up and running, and it will be difficult to do that if one is playing all the games and the other is sitting,” Dubas told reporters.

“The way the schedule is at the beginning of the year kind of makes that easy, to let them both roll. But that said, it’s going to be based on merit, on how they play in exhibition, how they play to start the year… nothing has been promised to either and they’ll earn (playing time).”

If Murray at a $4.69 million cap hit for two years is a big gamble, Samsonov for half the term and a fraction of the price is a more calculated one.

In 94 games spread over three campaigns in Washington, Samsonov recorded a .902 save percentage and a 3.02 goals-against average. Not exactly wow numbers, but he won more games than he lost (53-23-10).

Capitals GM Brian MacLellan attempted to trade Samsonov in the off-season but could not find a partner. The organization then declined to hand him a $2.2-million qualifying offer, letting their 2015 first-rounder walk for nothing — a decision that Samsonov says surprised him “a little bit.”

The goalie chalks it up to business.

According to those close to the team, Samsonov’s ATV injury leading up to the 2020 bubble playoffs did not endear him to the team.

Forget the numbers, one source advised.

Samsonov may be athletic and capable of highlight-reel moments, but he can also drift or lose his stick.

The Russian built a reputation for surrendering soft, ill-timed goals in close games that would kill momentum.

“The team gave him plenty of opportunity to seize the No. 1 job, and he couldn’t have sustained success,” the source said.

New Leafs goalie coach Curtis Sanford is embracing the challenge of Samsonov’s bounce-back. Sanford flew down to Florida, where Samsonov was conducting his summer training with reigning Vezina champion Igor Shesterkin.

Emphasis was placed on improving Samsonov’s footwork, cross-crease speed, and post work. Samsonov also picked Shesterkin’s brain for advice on steeling his mental game.

“He’s putting in lots of work, and he’s a very motivated guy coming in,” coach Sheldon Keefe enthuses.

“Very nice guy. Great attitude, great approach. He speaks OK English, but he goes out of his way to talk to guys.”

Prior to showing up for camp in Toronto, Samsonov spoke with his fellow Ilyas, Lyubushkin and Mikheyev, to get a sense of what it’ll be like under the microscope.

“Everybody says the same thing: nice people, a lot of media here,” Samsonov smiles.

“Me and Matt will get some opportunity both. It’s really nice opportunity for me. He’s a nice guy. We’ll try to push together, and we want to win with this team.”

Muzzin sidelined already

Jake Muzzin was a notable absentee from Day 1 of camp’s on-ice sessions.

The top-four defenseman will be sidelined until early next week as he nurses discomfort in his back.

“I’m feeling good, and I haven’t felt anything about the concussions I’ve had in the past. But I’m feeling good and ready to go for this year,” Muzzin told reporters on Wednesday.

Keefe says he is not concerned with the seriousness of the issue.

“Today, for the most part, is one of the hardest days of the year. This was a good day to give him some additional time away,” the coach said.

The 33-year-old was limited to 47 appearances in 2021-22 as he battled multiple ailments but showed well in the seven-game Tampa Bay series.

Toronto’s blueline depth has taken a preseason hit, with RFA Rasmus Sandin still unsigned and Timothy Liljegren (hernia) out for a minimum of six weeks.

One-timers: Calle Järnkrok kicked off camp alongside Auston Matthews and Michael Bunting. Adam Gaudette skated with John Tavares and Mitch Marner. The new guys will get prime audition time for the top six…. Pierre Engvall (foot) skated in full equipment on a separate pad. He is ruled out until Oct. 3…. Goalie Joseph Woll (shoulder) and forward Mikhail Abramov (back) are still recovering from injuries…. The team was split into the two groups that will host the Ottawa Senators in Saturday’s preseason double-header…. The Maple Leafs’ training camp playlist — cranked to 11 — felt very much inspired by the Super Bowl LVI halftime show and the Dr. Dre family tree. A steady stream of vintage NWA, Eminem, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar, and The Game. A little Future and Drake tossed in for good measure. No complaints here.

Maple Leafs Day 1 lines

Group 1

Bunting – Matthews – Järnkrok

Aston-Reese – Kämpf – Anderson

Robertson – Kerfoot – Aube-Kubel

Clifford – Minten – Simmonds

Rielly – Brodie

Benn – Mete

Kokkonen – Villeneuve

Samsonov

Källgren

Group 2

Gaudette – Tavares – Marner

Malgin – Holmberg – Nylander

McMann – Der-Arguchintsev – Abruzzese

Steeves – Douglas – Ellis

Giordano – Holl

Kral – Dahlström

Rifai – Hollowell

Murray

Ferguson

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