Leafs Need Goaltending Assurance

Auston Matthews is the first player with 45 goals in his first 51 games since Mario Lemieux had 51 goals in his first 51 games of 1995-96.
Sportsnet via Twitter

TORONTO (Feb. 17) — Barring injury or a lengthy slump, Auston Matthews will become, this season, the first player to score more than 60 goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs. After his hattrick against Philadelphia, Matthews is on pace for 71, which would represent the highest total in the National Hockey League since Alex Mogilny (Buffalo) and Teemu Selanne (Winnipeg) counted 76 in 1992–93. Also, it would tie Matthews with Wayne Gretzky (1982–83) and Jari Kurri (1984–85) for the eighth–highest figure in NHL history. To call him, even now, the greatest sniper in the annals of the Blue and White is hardly premature. That could become official sometime next season, as Auston is 76 goals shy of drawing even with franchise leader Mats Sundin, who potted 420 in Toronto.

How, then, do we reconcile that Matthews has a mere 22 goals in 50 career playoff games? Again, 45 in 51 this season; 22 in 50 all time when the stakes increase. Including not a single tally in the past six elimination matches and zero goals in the five–game loss to Florida last May. Yes, I know: I’m being “negative”. But, the numbers simply do not lie. Rather, they dovetail quite noticeably with the club’s poor record of one playoff–round victory in eight attempts since No. 34 came aboard as the first pick of the 2016 NHL draft. All of which means absolutely nothing to Brendan Shanahan and Brad Treliving, who have ensured that Matthews and William Nylander will be cornerstones of the team for the next four to eight years. With Mitch Marner almost certain to join them as a Leaf for life after next season. We can argue until the cows come home about the Leafs putting long–term faith in players that habitually shrink when the Stanley Cup hunt begins. That much is irrefutable, given documentation over seven years — a long time in professional sport with nothing tangible to show. I’ve made it abundantly clear that the Leafs, were they truly interested in competing for a championship, would have understood the need for fundamental change after the Montreal playoff debacle of 2021. Instead, Shanahan keeps on rewarding his elite forwards for accomplishment in the regular season while overlooking an obvious and glaring deficit once the playoffs begin.

With management granting full, no–movement privileges the way Santa Claus hands out candy canes, these are your Maple Leafs for the foreseeable future. Like it or not (and I don’t). As such, and as always, the club can only nibble on the fringes of the roster while trying to improve. The Toronto way, for all but three years (2014–15–16), has been to unload high draft choices for a quick fix at the trade deadline that never materializes. Bryan Hayes of TSN told colleague Jay Onrait on SportsCenter that this is the year for Toronto to virtually stand pat, citing a near–empty cupboard of first and second–round picks… and that last year’s Stanley Cup finalists (Vegas and Florida) did nothing at the deadline. Had the Leafs experienced even a modicum of playoff success in the Core–4 era, I would agree with Bryan. But, it’s been proven beyond much doubt that Shanahan, Treliving and Sheldon Keefe cannot expect the big–money boys up front to maintain or elevate performance after the regular season. They can hope for it, as every spring, yet there’s no basis for such promise. So, I contend the Leafs have to make a potentially big improvement irrespective of the core pieces. And, there’s no better place to look than between the pipes.

During his soliloquy on SportsCenter, Hayes (and, I’m paraphrasing) said to Onrait “the Leafs have the best goal scorer up front; loads of offensive skill around Auston Matthews; the heavy lifting they did last off season (Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi); whoever in net, and a good playoff defenseman in Morgan Rielly.” The “whoever in net” was mentioned as kind of a subordinate clause — Hayes referring to one of Ilya Samsonov, Martin Jones or Joseph Woll, but unwittingly pointing out the biggest question–mark surrounding the Maple Leafs: is goaltending, right now, of Stanley Cup caliber? It’s been all over the map so far this season. Samsonov, the undisputed opening–night starter, scuffled to the point of passing through NHL waivers in January. Woll has, quite remarkably, been sidelined for more than ten weeks with a high–ankle sprain. People recover more quickly from organ transplants. Jones was signed as insurance and performed well over a half–dozen games with Samsonov out of the picture.

Some might suggest a bigger question involves the Core–4 and whether it can put up regular–season numbers in the Cup tournament. Given seven long years, however, there’s no mystery to the answer. By now, Leafs Nation should anticipate regression, in particular, from Matthews and Marner. The blue line hardly resembles a balanced, cohesive unit and has only one semi–elite performer: Rielly. So, it would appear the Maple Leafs need a goaltender that can steal playoff games… and, perhaps, even a series. There are too many “what if’s” among the trio that has split the chores this season. But, one of the NHL’s premier stoppers could be available before the Mar. 8 trade embargo. I’ve written about him before: Juuse Saros of the Nashville Predators.

A few days ago, Nashville general manager Barry Trotz offered this candid remark about Saros: “He’s been a special player, no question. But at the same time, you have to listen for the long–term as well. If an asset comes that you just can’t envision yourself getting — and our strength is goaltending — then you would have to consider [trading Saros]. And I told him that.” Should it happen, the Predators will extract an enormous price, given the netminder’s age, contract, career numbers and versatility (he led all NHL goalies in games played last season and the one before). At 28, Saros may just be entering his prime. Elite goalies traditionally “mature” a bit later than position players (see Johnny Bower, Dominik Hasek, Tim Thomas, Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour). So, Saros is a probable gem. Consider, first, that he has two years of control remaining on his contract at a very manageable $5 million cap hit (without movement restrictions). He’ll be 29 in April; the perfect age for a goalie to excel. Joseph is the best Leafs stopper of the post–1967 era. His tenure here, from 1998–99 to 2001–02, spanned from ages 31 to 35.

Belfour was 38 and 39 when he enjoyed his two very good seasons in our town (2002–2004).

Saros, if he remains healthy, could be prominent for another decade in the NHL. Which would carry the Leafs well beyond the prime years of their elite forwards. Not since Bower (1958–69) has a Toronto netminder held the fort over such a span (the closest being Frederik Andersen: 2016–21). But, the Maple Leafs, quite obviously, stand no chance of competing for Saros if they plan to remain quiet before the trade deadline. On the contrary, Treliving would almost surely have to yield Woll, this year’s first–round draft pick and one of Easton Cowan or Fraser Minten. Sounds like a lot to give up, yet not really if it provides the Blue and White the potential for stability in goal through the biological prime of Nylander, Matthews et al. Yes, the blue line is forever in need of a Norris Trophy candidate and more muscle. But, aren’t the Leafs rather overdue to solidify the game’s most important position?

Knowing Shanahan, who calls the shots from the ivory tower, the club will stay conservative. Toronto hasn’t pulled off a blockbuster trade in nearly three decades, since Wendel Clark went to the old Quebec Nordiques for Sundin just prior to the 1994 NHL draft in Hartford. In the past seven years, everything has revolved around the Core–4. Stanley Cup teams traditionally orbit goaltending and defense. Not fancy forwards. But, the big–money boys in blue and white are locked in tighter than leather pants on a runway model.

Prospects and draft picks are the lone currency for Shanahan and Treliving.

They can hang onto them and cross their fingers.

Or, the Leafs can make a determined bid to land one of the NHL’s best goalies.

From this corner, it is hardly a difficult choice.

LANNY IMPROVING: Hall–of–Fame winger Lanny McDonald, who suffered a flat–line heart attack 12 days ago at Calgary Airport, is coming along nicely in his recovery. According to close friend and former Leafs line–mate, Darryl Sittler, ol’ Machine Gun could leave hospital and return home this weekend. McDonald turned 71 on Friday.


The Leafs were losing, 4–1, at Chicago on this date in 1974… and about to absorb a gut punch. The club’s next game was against Buffalo: a 4–2 triumph at home on Feb. 20. Veteran defenseman Tim Horton of the Sabres, still regarded alongside Borje Salming as the greatest blue–liner in Leafs history, played the match with a broken cheekbone. Afterward, the pain dulled by narcotics, he received permission from GM Punch Imlach to drive back to Buffalo. While negotiating a curve on the QEW near St. Catharines, Horton lost control of his Ford Pantera and was thrown from the vehicle. Though he appeared physically intact, without scrapes or bruises, the Hall–of–Famer broke his neck in the accident and died. What a shock it was for the entire hockey world, but particularly fans of the Maple Leafs and Sabres. Tim was buried the following Monday (Feb. 25) at York Cemetery in Toronto.


13 comments on “Leafs Need Goaltending Assurance

  1. Howard- I attended that last Tim Horton game at MLG- as a 16 year with my Dad. We sat North end several rows into the end blues ( visitors end- periods 1 and 3) . We both remarked during the third period that Tim Horton did not seem to be playing in the game any longer. As I recall Horton had a fairly unremarkable game up to that point and I was unaware that he had been named as a star at the end of game.

    Combination of high car speed ,likely alcohol and alleged no seatbelt- large contributors to Mr. Horton’s tragic death . Toxicology evidently showing amobarbital- a sedative found in his system and the finding of Dexamyl( amobarbital and Dexedrine combo pill) on his person- suggest Horton was using this as weight loss suppressant rather than as an “ upper”.

  2. If the brass at MLSE truly invested in strong goaltending, it would signal that the team was fervently and seriously focused on winning the Stanley Cup. Howard, as you’ve written many times, the Leafs’ decision making suggests that the Cup is not the real objective. It’s incredibly confusing, but if the Cup isn’t the goal, what on earth is the real objective? It’s taken me a long time to figure it out but it’s now clear that the Leafs are built solely to win All-Star games! How else can anyone explain the top-heavy Corpse 4 and the woefully underfunded crew inside our blue line? It’s a classic case of misdirection – we the fans are focused on winning the Cup, but MLSE in their ultimate wisdom laugh off those aspirations. Everyone knows that it’s all about the All-Star game!

  3. Remember Marcel Dionne won a few scoring titles…. but no cup…..so they have a Dionne… yeah I never watch regular season… practice for playoffs… as Mister Kawhi Leonard says..

  4. My take.
    The Leafs are stuck with the goaltending they have for this year. They will live or die with how Samsonovs brain holds up. Woll is capable enough if he gets back to playing by mid March. Jones is a backup if either cant perform. If he is your starter, you are dead.
    Dubas stuck the Leafs into this position. Panicking now to give up some future, a 1st and really another 1st in Cowan or Minten would be foolish. You need those guys who can perform, and perform cheap for 4 years, to balance off the fat contracts that the Core have, and Knies will expect in 2 years. What they need is defense. Brodie and Giordano are off the books at the end of this year. Taveras in a year from now. They need to take that money and get two legit high end defenseman so Lillegran and McCabe can be 4 and 5, and then you can live with a 6 or 7 guy in Timmins and Benoit. None of that happens this year. They will have to live and die one more year with how Mathews and Marner perform, or dont, come playoff time. Dealing more youth wont work this time. They have to ride it out. Tre cant undo what Dubas baked until the cake is bought. That is for next year.

      1. As good at Saros is, and we agree he is near the top of the league and fully in his prime, the panic part is to mortgage even more of the future now for him, when even he is not enough to put Nashville even squarely into the playoffs, thus why Trotz will deal him. The time to get him is in the off season, after Samsonov is let go of, you still have Woll as a 1a, and you can decide which of Cowan, Minten, Robertson you want to package with a 1st pick and possibly Lillegren to get him.
        What Im saying is, the way this team is now, with that slow and mediocre defense corps, and Im being very generous in saying they are even mediocre, he wont be enough to help this team win in the playoffs. They will live and die with how Mathews, Marner, Nylander and Bertuzzi perform for them. They beat Tampa because they outscored them in the games they won. Not because they outdefended them. Nothing has changed. Go out and get those two defensemen for next year, and then we can talk about putting a top goalie behind it and winning close games for a long run to the finals. Not before.

  5. I believe that your memory is correct regarding Tim Horton. I think he was the 3rd star. I can still remember a post-game highlight showing him throwing Darryl Sittler into the corner like a rag doll. My mom woke me the following morning with the news of Horton’s passing, just a few minutes before my buddy and I drove up to Sudbury so that I could check out the Sports Admin program at Laurentian. We hunkered down in our motel room on the Friday night and listened to the radio broadcast of our hometown London Knights entertaining the Sudbury Wolves. The broadcaster for Sudbury was some guy by the name of Joe Bowen. Holy Mackinaw, was he ever good!!!
    Thanks for the memories.

  6. I am not expecting much and have not taken part in much conversation on social media about what the Leafs are doing. I will always come back and say, only if Matthews does this in the playoffs or somewhat close when it matters, only then does it matter. Yet, most would come back to me and adamantly state, enjoy what is happening now, never mind about the playoffs. Therein lies the problem, enjoy the “regular season.” For me, if he hits 70, 80 or 90, good for him. I think this team will fizzle when the playoffs start. They are a one line team, after that, nothing, no goalie and no defense. My take anyway.

    1. you are dead on, this team is just a bunch of pansies that would only win the shinny cup in my Friday night beer league, where there is no hitting, toughness , defense etc..

  7. Hi Howard, was Horton third star of his final game? I am looking for the ticket stub this afternoon. Thanks.

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