Candid Samsonov opens up about early-season struggles
The Maple Leafs and Predators practised at the Centennial Sportsplex in Nashville on Friday ahead of Saturday’s game.
During a candid media session on Friday, Ilya Samsonov opened up about his early-season struggles and the toll it has taken on his mental health.
"If I'm saying I feel great, it's not the true," the 26-year-old goalie admitted. "I feel s--t, but it's a piece of my life and, you know, like, I'm back fighting through this. I will be fighting every day ... I know I'm better goalie than this."
Samsonov was pulled after allowing three goals on four shots in his last start on Saturday in Tampa. His save percentage is an ugly .831 this season, which is better than only four of the 68 goalies in the NHL who have played this season.
"It's more mental spot for me," he said. "It's not how I play hockey. It's not physically. It's not about technical. It's just about mental stuff."
"The important message here is that it is early," stressed coach Sheldon Keefe. "I know there are questions coming from you guys and all of that stuff, but it is early. Let's relax. This is a really good goalie who carried us through some tough times last year and had a career year. Let's let it breathe. Tomorrow is another opportunity for him to get in there and build his game back."
This season-long five-game road trip has been good for team bonding, but Samsonov can't help but feel like he's letting the people closest to him down.
"This team [is] my second family," he said. "My first family [is] at home and everybody is so sad about this too. Everybody watch some hockey and everybody stay positive, but I know how hard it is for my family too."
The Leafs rallied to win against the Lightning with Joseph Woll stopping every shot in a relief performance.
"Guys save my ass and we win," he said. "I want to say, 'Thank you' to everybody ... I like it here because everybody support with the talking and the game."
Woll was equally impressive during wins in Washington on Tuesday and Dallas on Thursday. He's pushing hard for more playing time.
"It's big competition for me," said Samsonov, who signed another one-year deal in the summer after going to arbitration with the Leafs. "It's unbelievable. We need to be happy because we have a great goalie."
Early in the season, Samsonov felt he was the victim of some bad bounces. But as the pucks kept going in – 14 overall in four games – he let it get to him. This break between games has helped him reset.
"Sometimes we have this in life," he said. "It's big opportunity for me. Sometimes you [learn] more in this moment than what time [is] good with everything. It's hard time for me but I will figure out this."
Goalie coach Curtis Sanford has preached positivity with a series of pep talks this week. And Keefe is quick to point out that Samsonov won the starting job last season by posting a .919 save percentage in 42 games and then outplayed Andrei Vasilevskiy to backstop the Leafs to a playoff series win.
"The things that he did last season and the success that he had — whether it is the type of regular season that he had or being the goalie to help us win a playoff round — are significant accomplishments and a huge step in his career," Keefe said. "Latch onto that and have that as the foundation of your confidence. Just get to work and clear your head. It is a mental game for him right now. He has the ability. He has shown that."
Juuse Saros, who has a .910 save percentage in seven starts this season, will get the start for Nashville on Saturday, coach Andrew Brunette confirmed.
Woll stopped 31 of 32 shots to help the Leafs hand the Stars their first regulation loss on Thursday.
"He's been phenomenal," gushed defenceman Morgan Rielly. "It's not like he's just making easy saves. He's making really difficult saves, beautiful saves in important times of the game against great players."
The latest example came in the second period in Dallas when Woll did the splits to rob Jason Robertson, who has eclipsed the 40-goal mark in each of the last two seasons.
"That was a time they were kind of controlling play a bit so just trying to do the best I can to keep our team in it," Woll said. "It was just kind of a quick play. I threw everything I had at him with the leg and managed to get it."
JOSEPH WOLL ROBS ROBERTSON pic.twitter.com/opGWGK1pks— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) October 27, 2023
Does he work on those split saves?
"I have kind of a goofy body so I don't really practice," the 25-year-old said with a smile. "I actually have to contain my body a bit because I'm pretty flexible. I don't really do much stretching. I do more stuff to get my muscles working to keep everything in place ... It's more just strengthening the muscles and stuff to support my flexibility."
Woll was "bummed" not to face good friend Jake Oettinger, who played a couple seasons with him at the United States National Team Development Program.
"He was waiting on me to get up here and hopefully play against him in the NHL," Woll said. "I'm looking forward to when that day comes."
"He's one of the hardest workers I've ever met in my life," Oettinger said before the game. "When I was there, I remember after practice he'd be stretching for a half hour and I already had my street clothes on. I was like, 'Oh, I should probably be doing the same thing as him.' He pushed me super hard."
Woll has endured some injury issues early in his career, but now appears to be hitting his stride.
"Just so happy for him," Oettinger said. "He's just kind of scratching the surface. He's going to be a great goalie for a really long time."
Defenceman Jake McCabe sustained a lower-body injury on his first shift of Thursday's game.
"He was getting an MRI today right around the time we were practicing," Keefe said. "I don't have the results. The fact that he is getting an MRI tells us it is going to take time. It is just a matter of how long and how significant. We are not expecting it to be a day-to-day thing at this point."
Mark Giordano took McCabe's spot beside Timothy Liljegren on the second pair at practice. William Lagesson was called up from the American Hockey League and skated on the third pair with John Klingberg.
"He was signed for this purpose: to be a recall guy for us," Keefe said. "Some of the other guys had really good camps for us, but I think it is just important for us to keep them in a rhythm in the AHL and really get some footing there. For a guy like Lagesson, he has experience in this situation. It just makes sense."
The cap-strapped Leafs only have enough space to carry one extra player so Fraser Minten, the 19-year-old centre who surprisingly won a roster spot with a strong training camp, was reassigned to the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League.
Toronto's defensive depth will be tested with McCabe out, but the good news is Rielly looks ready to take on more. He has scored in consecutive games, which already puts him halfway to last year's total, which was set over 65 games.
"He is skating really well," said Keefe. "Whether it is to break up a play, to advance the puck, or to get involved in the play offensively, it is just the way he is moving his feet and skating. That is when he is at his best. He has gotten better and better throughout this trip."
Rielly has seven points in seven games despite moving to the second power-play unit this season with Klingberg taking over as quarterback on the top unit. It's not the first time Rielly has relinquished the plum position. He also stepped aside gracefully for a time when Tyson Barrie was in Toronto.
"Mo's an all-time guy," Barrie said. "Whatever the team asks of him to win, he's a soldier. He'll do it and he'll do it well. Whether he's first unit, second unit, he's going to come to the rink with a smile on his face and work hard and be a good teammate."
So, it's no surprise that the longest-serving Leaf has made a smooth transition to the second unit. Rielly actually has a new position on the power play as well. He's often on the flank with Liljegren at the top.
"It's fun," he said. "As a D-man, you don't get to be down there too often, so when you get a chance to play the half wall or end up down lower in the zone, it's fun, so you want to take advantage of it."
Rielly beat Darcy Kuemper with a shot from the half wall on Tuesday in Washington.
"We want to contribute when we get out there and tilt the ice in our favour, score a goal every now and then," Rielly said of the second unit. "All those guys can play. When we get a chance to be in the offensive zone, we want to snap it around and score some goals."
MO STRIKES FIRST! pic.twitter.com/uVy2O6CLbc— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) October 24, 2023
Predators defenceman Roman Josi is also getting a look on the flank this season on Nashville's top unit with Barrie serving as the quarterback. Does he think it's fun like Rielly?
"It's a lot different," the Predators captain said. "You're definitely more involved. On the blue line you're just going back and forth and you're a disher who puts it on each side and then lets the guys make the plays. It's a little bit of an adjustment. As a d-man, you always tend to be higher up in the zone and when you're playing on the flank you have to go more backdoor and more to the net. It is a little different, but Rielly's right, it is a lot of fun."
So far the results are mixed in Nashville.
"It probably hasn't been as smooth as I'd like it to be right now," said Brunette. "You're putting Jos in a little bit of an uncomfortable position after playing the top most of his career. So, we're trying to get him comfortable being lower. That's the danger when you have two D, they don't usually go that down low or aren't comfortable hanging around the offensive net so there's some of those little things. He's taken the challenge and he wants to be there and we're trying to make it work."
The Predators’ power play is clicking at 20.7 per cent, which is 13th overall.
Rielly picked up a power-play assist on Thursday as his shot was tipped in by Tyler Bertuzzi. The winger is starting to find his way after a slow start with his new team.
"It was his best game," Keefe noted. "It has been coming."
Bertuzzi has just one even-strength point, but Keefe liked what he saw when he reviewed all his puck touches from the first six games.
"I have been looking at his game really closely," the coach said. "There are some things that he has been doing that haven't gotten a lot of attention ... He has done some very subtle things and keeping plays alive and moving the puck to his linemates. It hasn't necessarily been rewarded with points, but I think he has been coming."
Bertuzzi has also been dealing with an undisclosed nagging injury issue, which nearly kept him out of the games at the start of the trip.
"I'm feeling not bad," he said. "A couple little things, but nothing major. It's a long road trip so kind of takes a toll on you as you go, but we got one more game to go."
"I thought his skating — moving his feet and staying involved in the play — was probably the most consistent it has been throughout a game," Keefe said of the Thursday effort.
Bertuzzi started the season on the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, but it didn't really click. He seems to be gaining traction since moving to the second line with John Tavares and William Nylander on Tuesday.
"A very smart, crafty player," Tavares said. "Extremely competitive. Really gets into the dirty areas, very good in tight spaces so that stuff only gets better the more you play."
Keefe sees Bertuzzi's improvement as being more about internal motivation rather than linemates.
"He is kind of fed up with how it is going," Keefe observed. "He is just working and grinding. We have spent time with him. He is just more comfortable in general regardless of who he is playing with. It is a good sign for us. He is an important player."
Bertuzzi signed a one-year deal in the summer.
Ryan O'Reilly will face the Leafs for the first time since helping Toronto win a playoff series.
"It's going to be weird," the Nashville centre said. "Even though I was only there for, gosh, a certain period of time, going through a playoff series is like going through a war together and you get pretty close with guys."
The 32-year-old from Clinton, Ont., who was acquired from the St. Louis Blues ahead of last season's trade deadline, is still disappointed by how things ended in the second round against the Florida Panthers.
"We should've gave Florida a better run and definitely not a good taste that way," he said.
But O'Reilly will never forget what it was like to help his hometown team win its first playoff series since 2004.
"Just being in that locker room after that game and the relief of guys to work so hard for that and having been through so much," he recalled. "It's not easy to win a playoff series and just the way the team was after that, the appreciation you had for each other, for how guys stuck with, and it wasn't perfect by any means, but you found a way and at moments the right guys stepped up. Being in that locker room after the game was a really special feeling, just the excitement, and not just the players, everyone, the trainers, all the staff, it was a big accomplishment."
What does he like most so far about life in Nashville?
"The music," he said with a grin. "Not just country music, but there's so many great venues. It's R&B and there's jazz clubs, there's so much good music. It's nice when family comes in, they stay busy and there's lots they can do."
Lines at Friday's Leafs practice:
Jarnkrok - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Nylander
Knies - Kampf - Domi
Gregor - Holmberg - Reaves
Rielly - Brodie
Giordano - Liljegren
Lagesson - Klingberg
Absent: McCabe (lower body)