Maple Leafs: 3 Burning Questions for 2023-24 Season – The Hockey Writers

When you look back at last season, you might think that all in all, it was a success for the Toronto Maple Leafs. They were dominate throughout the regular season and they even managed to get over their first-round woes, knocking down the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1. 

While the high points were there, the disappointment was still evident as they lost in five games to the Florida Panthers, where the offense dried and they had no answer. As the offseason nears the end and training camp starts in about a month’s time, there are some important questions that need to be addressed. Here a three burning questions for the Maple Leafs heading into the 2023-24 season.

Will Samsonov Have an Encore Performance?

When he signed his first one-year deal with the Maple Leafs, goaltender Ilya Samsonov was on a mission to prove his worth and value as a goaltender. It turned out to be his most impressive and productive season in his short NHL career. He went 27-10-5 with a career best in save percentage (.919) and goals against average (2.33). 

Ilya Samsonov Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Samsonov and the Maple Leafs eventually went to an arbitrator to figure out a contract, settling on a one-year, $3.55 million deal. While it would’ve been nice for him to get some term involved, it’s another opportunity for him to continue to prove his worth and show that last season wasn’t a fluke. It could ultimately earn him a long-term deal with the Maple Leafs, earning another salary increase or can hit the open market. 

The fact that he has got his opportunity to succeed after struggling with the Washington Capitals shows that Samsonov was committed to putting in the work and showing that he can be a starter in this league. There was doubt about his ability to be over aggressive in the crease with his movements, but he surpassed expectations and quickly became the starter. He was one of the best in key statistical categories at five-on-five with a minimum of 1,000 minutes played, especially when it came to his high danger save percentage as he was tops in the league with .901. In 2021-22, he was near the bottom with a .785 HDSV%, one spot under Jack Campbell who was the Maple Leafs starter at the time. 

Related: Maple Leafs, Samsonov Both Benefit From 1-Year Contract

Samsonov did provide the goaltending needed for a long run before he sustained a neck injury in the playoffs. Now that it’s a new season and that he has more of a larger sample as starter under his belt, is he capable of providing an encore performance to match or even surpass last season’s results? 

Samsonov was dialled in and extremely focussed when the team needed him to and now with the starter role completely his, it’s time for him to continue to run away with that. He doesn’t need to worry about sharing the net with another established NHL goaltender. All he needs to do is go out there and play to that level that he’s capable of and make himself known that he can play and get results consistently. It’s quite possible that it can happen.

Can Added Grit Make a Difference?

The Maple Leafs went into the offseason looking for a new direction with the lineup, both on and off the ice. There were some key acquisitions that made them more competitive, adding toughness and grit to the team while still bringing in players with offensive upside.

Tyler Bertuzzi Boston Bruins
Tyler Bertuzzi, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi led the way as the top names signed for the Maple Leafs to bring that balance, while Ryan Reaves was brought in to protect the stars and as a fresh voice in the locker room. The Maple Leafs are a very skilled team but they have lacked the grit, toughness and even personality at times as this was something to try and shake things up. General manager Brad Treliving mentioned those characteristics that this team needed.

“As much as the game’s changed, some things have never changed,” Treliving said according to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox. “At the most important times, the rink shrinks. There’s no space. You need courage. And we wanted to add players like that.” 

Having those types of players can go a long way for a team. We know the Maple Leafs have the skill, but we also know that they’ve shied away from scrums and physical play. That’s all about to change. The Florida Panthers went on a massive run to the Finals after bringing in Matthew Tkachuk as their shakeup and it worked. Now, the Maple Leafs don’t need Bertuzzi or Domi to put up points like Tkachuk, but they have the mindset and competitive nature like him.

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Tkachuk said that when it comes to the playoffs, it’s more than just skill that takes over. It takes a lot more than flash as more of the intangibles become more evident and the momentum continues to build like the Panthers did all postseason. This change in direction could be a major turning point for the Maple Leafs as they have players with the drive, physicality and ability to get under the opponent’s skin that could benefit them all season. 

Will Rookies Continue to Shine?

There shouldn’t but a lot of stock put into small sample sizes for rookie players. However, it’s hard to not look at the impact that both Matthew Knies and Joseph Woll had in the second half and not be impressed. As a result, it could be a sign of what’s to come as both players look to get more of an increased role in 2023-24.

Matthew Knies Toronto Maple Leafs
Matthew Knies, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

Knies was very impressive after signing his entry level contract, working his way up the lineup from his very first game to the playoffs. It was when the postseason turned where he started to standout even more with his drive, intensity and ability to play down low and to protect the puck. He had four points in seven playoff games, possessing the third best 5v5 expected goals for percentage of 59.51 and fourth best high danger chances for percentage of 61.11 on the team. 

He was already establishing himself as a player head coach Sheldon Keefe can rely on. Whether he was on the third line or getting a glimpse on the top line, Knies stood out in a positive way. As he enters his rookie season, he’ll look to have a major impact

With Matt Murray being placed on long-term injured reserve, a spot has opened up for Woll as he looks to cement himself as the backup to Samsonov this season. The Maple Leafs have been searching for a capable backup that can provide some consistent results. Over the past two seasons, Woll has done just that. Last season, he went 6-1-0 and a .932 SV% and looked to have shown great composure taking over for Samsonov when he was injured. 

Even though Martin Jones is in the picture, it shouldn’t have an impact on Woll as Jones’ results weren’t that great. Woll has shown that he’s ready for more minutes and be a steady goalie in the NHL. 

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The combination of Samsonov looking to prove himself once again, the addition of both gritty players and rookies will make everything interesting for the Maple Leafs this season. Will the changes and new players help push this team further and make them even more dangerous? It all starts on October 11th when the season kicks off and another journey begins.

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