Calls for the Toronto Maple Leafs to make Joseph Woll the team's top goaltender instead of Ilya Samsonov could easily be interpreted as premature, even with the American coming off two straight stellar outings.
That's not to say Samsonov hasn't struggled so far this season — as his NHL Edge page will attest:
We're talking about a four-game sample, though. This is still a guy whose .919 save percentage ranked fifth among all goaltenders who appeared in 40 or more games last season.
Even during that strong campaign, he had a rough patch similar to what we've seen lately. Between Dec. 17 and Jan. 3 he posted an .850 save percentage and allowed 17 goals in four games. His save percentage in his next four games was .947.
Goaltending is volatile enough on a year-to-year basis. In a handful of games anything can happen. Samsonov is struggling, but we're early enough in the season that both Igor Shesterkin and Connor Hellebuyck have save percentages below .880.
Samsonov doesn't have a track record matching that pair, but he entered the season with 131 games of approximately league-average goaltending (+3.1 GSAA) on his resume. Handing his job to someone like Woll with 18 games of NHL experience would be an unusual move.
And yet, the Maple Leafs will be continually incentivized to give their crease over to Woll this season. It's unclear if the team is quite there yet, but the smart money is on Woll becoming the team's top option by the end of 2023-24.
That's partly because Woll has looked good whenever he's been given an opportunity. The 25-year-old's early NHL resume is more than solid. In his first 18 games (including playoffs) he has a goals-against average of 2.24 and a save percentage of .929. While Samsonov has stumbled out of the gate, Woll has excelled.
Woll can't take the job unless he performs, but the reason Toronto is likely to favour him goes beyond his skill between the pipes. The contract situation with Samsonov and Woll makes it likely the Maple Leafs will give their less-experienced netminder some serious run unless he's significantly worse than his veteran teammate.
Samsonov is an unrestricted free agent following 2023-24, while Woll is under contract for another year at a minuscule $766K cap hit.
Having a starter who makes that little money next year would be so advantageous to the Maple Leafs' team-building efforts for 2024-25 that it will be extremely appealing to test Woll's viability in that role — if it can be done without having a massive adverse affect on this season.
To illustrate that, let's play out four relatively basic scenarios for the 2023-24 season in net.
1. Samsonov ultimately remains the primary starter and does well
In this situation, the Maple Leafs may feel the need to retain Samsonov as their long-term starter. At this point he will have delivered two consecutive strong years entering his age-27 season.
Samsonov would command a significant contract, putting the Maple Leafs in a difficult cap situation as William Nylander, Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, T.J. Brodie, John Klingberg and Mark Giordano are all free agents at the end of 2023-24. If Nylander gets a new deal and the team signs Samsonov, there wouldn't be much left for the supporting cast.
Going to Woll in 2024-25 might still be tempting in this situation, but if Samsonov has been the starter, Woll will still be extremely inexperienced — and it will be unclear if he can start for a team with lofty competitive ambitions.
2. Samsonov remains the primary starter and struggles
This is the nightmare scenario for Toronto. In this case, Samsonov has made it clear he can't be the Leafs' long-term answer and they haven't learned whether Woll has a shot to fill that void.
Then the team would be hunting for an established goaltender in the trade or free-agent market and likely walking into the same issues as in the first scenario. This is worse, though, because Samsonov's age makes him a better long-term bet than most guys who'd be available.
It is extremely unlikely this comes to pass because Samsonov's track record isn't good enough for the Leafs to stand by him no matter what. Finding out what they have in Woll is too valuable.
3. Woll becomes the primary starter and does well
This is probably the best thing that could happen for the Maple Leafs. Because of all the lineup vacancies the Leafs stand to have in 2024-25, a cap crunch is looming if they retain Nylander.
If they do, next season would include the Swede's new deal, the first year of Auston Matthews' extension, and the last year of an $11 million AAV for John Tavares. That's a nasty combination for the team's balance sheet, even if the cap rises a little bit.
Having a top goaltender getting paid less than $800,000 would help alleviate that issue and allow the Maple Leafs to pursue a cheap backup option.
4. Woll becomes the primary starter and struggles
This would be a tough situation for the 2023-24 Maple Leafs because it would mean both their goaltending options faltered. If Woll takes the job from Samsonov then squanders that opportunity, Toronto could be looking to import help at the trade deadline.
Whatever the case may be, the Maple Leafs would know to move on from Samsonov and treat Woll as an inexpensive backup for 2024-25. Finding another starting solution would be difficult, but there's significant value to be had in clarity.
Each of these possibilities has shades of grey. It's tough to precisely define what Woll would have to do to look like a reasonable starting candidate (or 1A guy) for next season — or what a Samsonov turnaround strong enough to invite a long-term commitment would look like.
However the particulars shake out, the contract situation underlying this crease will play a large role in how the Maple Leafs proceed. The team isn't tied to Samsonov beyond 2023-24, and there's so much potential value in using Woll as a primary goaltender next year that gathering information on him now is likely to be prioritized.
That said, the Maple Leafs are firmly a win-now team, and they won't risk their competitive fortunes to assess 2024-25 team-building options if Samsonov is clearly the best option in the present.
That hasn't been the case so far, leaving the veteran is in the midst of an uphill battle to keep his role. In the fight for playing time between the pipes, any tie will go to the guy who has a future with the team.