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The History of Leafs Goaltending in the 21st Century

How did we get here?

The Toronto Maple Leafs have one of the longest and richest histories of any team in professional sports, and the position of goaltender has always been a complicated one. There may be no other position in any other sport that has changed more in the past 30 years than that of goaltenders in the NHL. From the turn of the century to the present, let's take a look at Maple Leafs goalies.

The Cujo Era

On July 15, 1998, The Toronto Maple Leafs signed highly sought-after free agent Curtis Joseph to a four-year deal worth $24 million. This was the beginning of another era of solid goaltending in Toronto, previously led by Felix Potvin.

Having signed Joseph just the previous year, the Leafs foresaw some injury trouble in Potvin's future after he suffered a knee injury. They promptly traded him to the Islanders at the 1999 NHL draft.

Joseph backstopped the Leafs from 1998 to 2002, taking them to two conference finals and two second-round exits. Through those four seasons, Joseph played 249 games with a record of 133-88, a .912 save percentage (SV%), and a 2.43 goals against average (GAA). He was remarkably steady during his tenure.

Unable to agree to terms on a new contract in Toronto, Joseph left to sign with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002.

The Belfour Years

With Cujo gone, Leafs GM and Head Coach Pat Quinn looked to the free agent market to fill in the blank in net. There he found 37-year-old UFA Ed Belfour.

At the time, Belfour was coming off a less-than-stellar season with Dallas, with a 21-27-11 record and a save percentage of just .895.

Although at the time of the signing, fans were skeptical, (they had a right to be), Belfour played some of the best hockey of his career in the next two seasons for Toronto, putting up a .920 SV% and a 2.20 GAA from 2002 to 2004. The Leafs were outed in the first and second rounds those years right before the NHL entered the 04-05 lockout.

When the league resumed operations in 2005, Belfour saw a noticeable dip in his play. Two years older than when he last played, at age 40 he was only able to put up a .892 SV% with a dead even record of 22-22. It marked the end of his time in Toronto, as he signed a one-year deal in Florida before retiring at it’s end.

Raycroft, Followed by Toskala

Most Leafs fans know the story of Andrew Raycroft. Tuukka Rask was selected 21st overall by the Leafs at the 2005 entry draft, but never played a game for Toronto, instead choosing to spend his post-draft season in the Finnish Elite League. After the departure of Ed Belfour, the Leafs, not looking to rebuild and not having the patience to develop a young goaltending prospect, decided to trade Rask to the Bruins in exchange for Andrew Raycroft.

Looking back, you can see where the Leafs were coming from. Raycroft had just had a remarkable season posting a .926 SV% and a 29-18-9 record. Good enough to win him the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

The following season, however, wasn’t as bright in Toronto.

Raycroft played 72 games for the Leafs in 2006-07. He struggled mightily, putting up a .894 SV% and a 2.99 GAA. The following year, he would lose his net to Vesa Toskala, who the Leafs had just recently acquired from the San Jose Sharks for a substantial amount of picks.

Toskala was the Leafs' starter from 2007 to 2010. He played 145 games with an unremarkable .895 save percentage and a 3.06 GAA. Needless to say, the Leafs failed to make the playoffs during his tenure and traded him to the Calgary Flames in January 2010.

Reimer And Bernier

While it wasn’t always the most effective tandem, James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier were relatively steady for stretches. Reimer was selected by the Leafs in the fourth round of the 2006 draft and played part-time starter from 2010 to 2013. He most notably dragged the Leafs to their first playoff appearance in seven years in the lockout-shortened 2013 season with a magnificent .924 SV% and 2.46 GAA. The Leafs were eliminated in a heartbreaking game seven loss to the Bruins, and the Leafs decided to go out and get Reimer some help in net.

On June 23rd, 2013 the Leafs acquired Jonathan Bernier from the L.A Kings in exchange for Ben Scrivens, Matt Frattin, and a second-round pick.

For the next three seasons, Bernier and Reimer split the net evenly. Bernier’s style was much more calm and smooth with a quick glove hand while Reimer tended to move around a lot in his crease, using lateral movement and his 6’3 frame to his advantage. The most interesting thing was, both styles worked. Although the Leafs never made the playoffs with these two goaltenders together, goaltending certainly wasn’t the thing holding them back, as they both provided save percentages of .914 and .915 respectively.

Reimer was eventually traded to the San Jose Sharks in February of 2016 as the Leafs began tearing down the team for the purpose of a rebuild, and Bernier left the team in free agency to sign with the Red Wings.

Fredrik Andersen

Having just drafted Mitch Marner and about to pick Auston Matthews first overall, the Leafs were looking to expedite their rebuild. In order to claw their way back to relevance, they needed a goaltender. In the days leading up to the 2016 draft, the Leafs acquired Andersen from the Ducks in exchange for the 30th overall pick in 2016 and a second-round pick in 2017. They then signed Andersen to a big-ticket deal. Five years, $5 million per year.

Andersen was one of the most solid and reliable goaltenders Toronto had seen in the past decade. Although he often started the season slowly, he was always able to right the ship. He was particularly impressive in 2017-18 where he put up a .918 save percentage with five shutouts despite facing more shots than any other goaltender in the entire NHL, earning him fourth place in Vezina voting.

In five years with Toronto, Andersen played 244 games and had a record of 136-66-33 with a .916 save percentage and 13 shutouts.

 His tenure came to an end when in the final year of his contract, Jack Campbell took the position of Leafs’ starter, and Andersen left to sign in Carolina.

Soup as a starter

Jack Campbell held the Leafs starting position for most of the 2021-22 season. He was nearly unbeatable in the first 20 games, putting up a remarkable 13-4-2 record and a .942 SV% with three shutouts. Shortly afterward, however, Campbell saw a dip in his play, likely due to a rib injury that caused him to miss time.  He then put up a measly .894 SV% the rest of the year. His backup Petr Mrazek had an incredibly tough year as well, posting a .888 SV% in 20 games played.

By the end of the season, despite some questionable play later on and injury issues, Campbell had priced himself out of Toronto and would sign a five-year, $25 million contract with the Oilers.

Murray and Samsonov

The departure of Jack Campbell left the Leafs with few options in net. They opted to trade Petr Mrazek at the draft and looked to both the free agent and trade market for answers.

There they found two goalies fallen from grace. Matt Murray who had driven the Penguins to two straight Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 at a young age, and Ilya Samsonov, who had not been tendered a qualifying offer by the Washington Capitals.

The Leafs acquired Matt Murray from Ottawa in what was mostly a cap dump move for the Sens. They received a 2023 third-round pick, and a 2024 seventh-round pick, and Murray at 25% retained, bringing his yearly cap hit down from $6.25M to $4.687M in exchange for future considerations (essentially nothing).

Samsonov was signed for one year at $1.8 million.

The duo was put together as a way to create some competition for the Leafs' starting job, and it worked quite well. Both goaltenders played solid games. However, towards the end of the year, it was clear who was the Leafs' starter.

Matt Murray, though he was dependable when healthy, simply could not stay that way. First, it was an adductor injury that kept him out for weeks, then an ankle injury that kept him out for over a month, and later on a concussion that pretty much ended his season.

Murray had some very impressive numbers before his injuries got the better of him, posting a .926 SV% in his first 10 games in Toronto, but simply couldn’t sustain it, falling to a .882 SV% in the 16 games following injury.

Samsonov was given the opportunity to seize the starting position and he took it. Putting up a .919 SV% with four shutouts in 42 games played.

It was enough for him to value himself highly this offseason, electing to go to salary arbitration with the hopes of getting a deal done at nearly $5 million AAV.

The arbitrator settled on a one-year deal at $3.55 million for a single year.

What’s Next?

With Ilya Samsonov choosing to go to salary arbitration and agreeing to terms on a one-year deal, he may very well be gone after this season. Despite this, the future in the Leafs' net looks incredibly bright thanks to Joseph Woll.

Woll was selected in the third round, 62nd overall in the 2016 NHL entry draft. He played three seasons for Boston College where he put up some very solid numbers before signing with the Toronto Marlies.

After a slow start to his Marlies tenure, Woll proved he was ready to make the leap to the NHL last season. In 2022-23 he had an amazing 16-4-1 record with a .927 SV%. When Matt Murray went down once again with an injury, he left the Leafs with no other choice than to call him up.

And he did not disappoint.

In seven regular season games, Woll went 6-1 and actually improved on his AHL numbers, putting up a whopping .932 SV% and a 2.16 GAA. On top of his impressive numbers, Woll’s style in net is a thing to behold.

He uses his 6’3 frame to great advantage, recognizing he doesn’t need to move much to cover the net. The way he holds himself upright and moves laterally, you’d think he’s far bigger than he actually is, somewhere in the 6’5 range. But it’s his calm demeanor that makes all the difference. He’s very reminiscent of prime Carey Price, a goaltender Leafs fans will know well.

The Leafs will head into this season with a tandem of Samsonov and Woll, as Matt Murray will almost certainly be traded before opening night for salary cap reasons. With Samsonov signed and Woll coming unto his own, the future is bright for Leafs’ goaltending.

Dave Felsbourg

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

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