Keefe admittedly reluctant to play this member of the Leafs' roster

Dean Chaudhry
December 21, 2023  (4:33 PM)

Photo credit: NHL

Ilya Samsonov's early season struggles have persisted, and because of it, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has remained reluctant to name him his starter in recent weeks. Even with Joseph Woll sidelined, Samsonov has been outperformed by Martin Jones, but the Leafs head coach will be turning to the Russian net-minder in tonight's divisional battle against the Buffalo Sabres.

In 13 games this season, Samsonov has posted a 5-1-5 record with a paltry .878 SV% and a 3.51 G.A.A. His peripheral numbers would represent career-lows after posting a .919 SV% and a 2.33 G.A.A just last season. Samsonov got shelled for 6 goals against the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets in his last start and had it not been for a wild comeback in the third period, he would have been awarded the regulation loss.
However, Keefe has been placed in a position where he almost has no choice but to roll with Samsonov, given the condensed schedule leading into the holiday break. And, of course, there's the fact that Martin Jones can't start every game:
"He's got to play. We gotta get him going here," head coach Sheldon Keefe said Thursday morning in Buffalo. "So, that's really it."

By Keefe's own admission, Samsonov is not his primary option right now. He's merely playing him because they have to try to get him going to avoid having to run 3rd string netminder Martin Jones ragged.
Although the Maple Leafs are sitting 2nd in the Atlantic Division with a 16-7-6 record, that has almost nothing to do with Samsonov's play this season. On the flip side, the Sabres have struggled this season to the tune of a 13-17-3 record, good for 2nd last in the division. They have also lost 2 straight games and 7 of their last 10, which should bode well for the Maple Leafs tonight. However, the Blue Jackets were an even more inferior opponent - in terms of the overall standings - and Samsonov allowed 5 goals in the first half of the game.
The heat is on for the 26-year-old to elevate his game in crunch time before the Maple Leafs are forced to take even more drastic measures, especially if he continues to struggle upon Woll's return.
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