Ilya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs have signed 25-year old goaltender Ilya Samsonov to a one-year, $1.8 million contract according to Frank Seravalli of Daily Faceoff.

Arthur Staple of The Athletic was first to report the deal:

Samsonov is a 6’3″ goaltender who was a highly-touted prospect and first-round pick of the Washington Capitals back in 2015. While many didn’t expect him to hit the free agent market, the Capitals chose not to give him a qualifying offer in order to avoid the risk of a potentially significant arbitration award. Samsonov played in 49 games between the regular season and playoffs in 2021-2022, and now he’ll partner with Matt Murray in Toronto.

His results at the NHL level have been rather mediocre, so this is more of a bet on Samsonov’s potential. Statistically, his rookie season was his best in the league — he posted a .913 save percentage (and 0.25 GSAx) in 26 games. His two seasons since haven’t gone quite as well — he posted a .902 save percentage in 19 games in 2020-21 before posting an .896 save percentage in 44 games this season.

Samsonov’s goals saved above expected of -11.1 ranked 38th out of 49 NHL goaltenders with a minimum of 1,000 minutes played this past season. In a platoon of Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, the latter posted the better numbers (both in save percentage and GSAx) throughout the 2021-22 regular season, but Samsonov took the crease back over in the playoffs for the final five games of the seven-game series loss to Florida after Vanecek was pulled in Game 2. Samsonov posted a respectable .913 save percentage in the series, albeit he lost three of four games (two in overtime) and was a .870 in Games 6 and 7 combined.

As a prospect, Samsonov was always dominant against his own age group. He posted a .934 save percentage in three games at the 2015 U18 tournament, a .952 save percentage in three games at the 2015 World Jr. A. Challenge, a .956 save percentage in two games at the 2016 World Juniors, and a .930 save percentage in six games at the 2017 World Juniors. Everyone thought he was going to be a good #1 option eventually, but it hasn’t worked out that way thus far.

I’m a bit surprised that Samsonov ended up on the Leafs, as I figured that a rebuilding team would outbid them in order to take a chance on his potential. While he’s not overly young for an NHL player, goalies tend to take much longer to fully develop. Now-Edmonton Oiler Jack Campbell, who was a former first-round pick himself, didn’t make the NHL full-time until he was 26.

Past save percentage isn’t exactly a great predictor of future save percentage, and the Leafs front office certainly seems to believe that. Goaltenders like Philipp Grubauer, Alex Nedeljkovic, Chris Driedger, Petr Mrazek, and even Marc-Andre Fleury went from posting a strong save percentage in 2020-21 to experiencing a big drop in 2021-22. Players who rebounded from a weak save percentage in 2020-2021 included Frederik Andersen, Ville Husso, Jonathan Quick, and Jacob Markstrom.

Both Murray and Samsonov are bigger goalies with plenty of upside, and the Leafs will be banking on at least one of them showing their full potential next season. The team has addressed their goaltending by taking on little long-term risk, but there is certainly plenty of risk in the short term if they do not perform. My guess is that the Leafs will give them both close to an equal-opportunity try-out to start the season and give up assets at the trade deadline (rather than now) to address the position if it does not work out.

It’s unusual for a contending team to add two draft picks (a third and a seventh) while acquiring two new goaltenders. Typically, you’d expect the picks and/or prospects to head the other way. If Murray and/or Samsonov work out, it’ll be impressive work to address an important position without giving up assets. If Murray and Samsonov struggle, they’ll need to make a move in-season, and they might not be in an ideal spot in the standings as a result.

Let’s hope that the Leafs added a good young goaltender just before his breakout season. While this is a one-year contract, Samsonov will be a restricted free agent next offseason, so the Leafs can retain him for multiple seasons if they choose.

Ilya Samsonov Scouting Report

via McKeen’s Hockey 2021-22 Yearbook 

The Washington Capitals almost certainly hoped to see a seamless transition between the Mitch Korn – Braden Holtby Era and their future with prospect Ilya Samsonov, and it’s been a bit frustrating to see that the Russian-born starter hasn’t quite hit his stride from a statistical or technical perspective. But luckily, the team in front of him remains strong enough to compensate for any issues that might occur on the back end — which leaves the Capitals in a position where they’re likely still going to be fine, even with Samsonov’s growing pains.

One of the strongest parts of Samsonov’s game is his skating speed, which can see him fluidly get across the crease in a single push even from a wider, lower stance. But even though he plays with speed that can keep up with the play in front of him, Samsonov’s inclination to hold himself lower and drop to his knees faster — even while still in motion — can burn him when doesn’t slow down to read the play in front of him and wait for puck releases. He can get caught overshooting his marks or dropping too fast before a shot, leaving holes open in his net even when he’s got the speed to compensate for it, which was exacerbated all the more by a nasty bout with Covid-19 last season that made it difficult for the goaltender to walk or breathe.

He still made the majority of his stops after having to adjust his hands or positioning but allowed enough goals on those miscues to force his offense to need to rack up the score in order to take home the win. As a result, he finished the 2020-21 season with a 13-4-1 record in 18 starts but posted a concerning .902 save percentage in all situations and allowed nearly three goals per game when adjusted for era.

His performance against high-danger shots last season saw no noticeable dip when compared to his first season of NHL games the year prior — unsurprising, given that he plays at his best when he’s purely acting on instinct against shooters in close without a lot of time to prepare. But when looking at his numbers from all shooting locations at even strength, Samsonov saw his numbers take a massive dip last year — very likely due to teams doing additional scouting on him and learning to remain more patient when he started to move, combined with what was likely a far-from-fun physical recovery from the viral illness.

He’s still just 25-years-old, so there’s plenty of time to watch his game develop and level out in the coming seasons.

Ilya Samsonov Video