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Samsonov presented with a chance to establish himself as the go-to guy

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At the end of Sunday’s practice, Sheldon Keefe pulled Ilya Samsonov aside for a chat.

“Just sort of to lay out the plan for him,” the coach revealed. “He is going to be busy and because of that, it is that much more important that he takes care of himself and is ready for the extra load. Yesterday, he looked good. He should be confident with the work he has put in and how he has performed. I wanted to make sure he was still smiling.”

We can confirm the 25-year-old is still grinning from ear to ear.

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“A couple nice wins,” a beaming Samsonov said. “We got some smiles.”

Samsonov has stopped 50 of 54 shots in a pair of wins to start his Toronto tenure. With Matt Murray sidelined for at least four weeks with an adductor injury, the first Russian goalie to play for the franchise will now get a chance to establish himself as the go-to guy.

“Nothing change for me,” Samsonov insisted.

How will he handle the pressure?

“Handle, like with stick?” he joked while making a stick-handling motion. “I didn’t feel pressure. I had a great summer. I keep working hard.”

The Washington Capitals opted not to extend a qualifying offer to their 2015 first-round pick during the summer, which made him an unrestricted free agent. Samsonov then signed a one-year deal in Toronto.

“He had other opportunities,” Keefe noted. “He could’ve got more years. This was the fit that he wanted … Obviously, if you’re coming here you know what it’s about in terms of what our team’s trying to accomplish and in terms of playing in our market.”

Samsonov readily admits this is the biggest challenge of his hockey career.

“It’s the first time I change teams in NHL and in my life,” he said.

Smiling Samsonov embraces the biggest challenge of his career

Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov talks to the media about the biggest challenge of his career, having faced his former team Washington and taking on the number one starting position.

Samsonov has been getting advice from Capitals sniper Evgeny Kuznetsov. The pair of close friends speak daily. There are no other Russian players on the Leafs’ roster.

“It’s not always easy coming to a new team when maybe you don’t speak the language as well as most players,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “He’s contributing in a big way and that only helps with the confidence and the integration in our team. Always a smile on his face. He’s got a positive energy to him. Guys are loving his work ethic and personality.”

The work ethic was evident even after Sunday’s on-ice session.

“I just walked through the gym to come and chat with you guys and he’s in there right now after playing last night and playing two games in the last three days,” Keefe said. “He’s in there getting extra work in and that’s what it’s all about. If you’re going to be a consistent and reliable goaltender you have to put the work in and he’s done that.”

Samsonov has only started 81 games in the NHL and his save percentage has declined in each of his three seasons going from .913 to .902 to .896. But there’s a reason why he was considered a top prospect not long ago.

“His size [6-foot-3, 214-pounds] and how well he can move and track the puck, you see his potential and why he was highly touted,” Tavares observed.

“You can see that ability that he has,” Keefe agreed. “It’s on us, as an organization, to help him be the goalie that he’s capable of being. He’s done his part in terms of listening, being accepting of the guidance and the work that he’s been asked to do, and so far results have been good. It’s a long season and we have to continue to work with him.”

The coach noted that Samsonov performed well in Washington’s playoff loss to the Florida Panthers last season. Samsonov posted a .912 save percentage in five games against the NHL’s highest-scoring side.

“We lose sight quickly of the fact that he played in the playoffs last year and went up against the Presidents’ Trophy winners and did a good job and there was a point in time where you thought that series could go the other way and he was the guy in the net for that,” Keefe said.

If Samsonov plays to his potential in Toronto, he will likely get another shot at a Stanley Cup run. The stakes are high for the goalie and the team this season.

“A guy with a lot of talent and a lot left to prove,” Keefe said. “He is on a bit of a mission this season. Now the door is really open for him.”

Is there cause for concern with the Leafs’ goalie tandem?

Craig Button joined SportsCentre to discuss the impact Matt Murray being placed on the LTIR has on the Maple Leafs and his questions surrounding the Senators defence.

William Nylander missed Sunday’s skate.

“Willy had a maintenance day,” said Keefe. “He wasn’t feeling well.”

Nick Robertson skated in Nylander’s spot on the second line with Tavares and Denis Malgin. If Nylander can’t play on Monday, the 21-year-old projects to make his season debut. Even if Robertson doesn’t play against the Arizona Coyotes, he’s expected to get in sooner than later. Older brother Jason Robertson will be visiting with the Dallas Stars on Thursday.

Robertson produced three goals and five assists in five pre-season games.

“Nick was phenomenal,” said Tavares. “Just the all-around game continues to come together. When everything starts to piece together, you know, the strengths of your game start to come out and that’s what really, really showed.”

What clicked?

“Just a calmness and slowing the game down a little bit,” Tavares observed. “Obviously, he can rev it up and play at a high pace and be dynamic when he wants to be, but it’s [about] not trying to go full go all the time and having that awareness and feel out there.”

Leafs Ice Chips: Nylander misses practice; Robertson skates with Tavares

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe and Captain John Tavares talk about forward Nick Robertson’s training camp and him possibly getting into the lineup tomorrow against Arizona. Mark Masters has more.

The waiver-exempt winger was sent to the American Hockey League at the end of camp because the cap-strapped Leafs couldn’t carry any extra players and didn’t want to risk losing the 25-year-old Malgin.

“Nick deserved to make our team with the effort and performance that he had through camp and the growth that he has shown,” acknowledged Keefe. “Our group has been rolling here now. It is on the guys who have been playing to keep their spots. It is on Nick to keep the momentum going.”

Robertson, who scored for the Marlies in a game on Saturday, admits it was “a mental grind” the last week.

“It was definitely hard to grasp,” he said of the cap-related demotion, “but I moved on and tried to do what I do down with the Marlies and thankfully I’m here.”

The mindset now?

“Just continue to prove myself,” Robertson said. “I got to earn every day. I have to earn every position. I got to play the same way I played in training camp: moving my feet and playing confident and simple.”

‘Hard to grasp’: Robertson on initially being cut due to Leafs cap situation

After being recalled from the AHL, Nick Robertson describes what it feels like to be back with the Leafs, explains how it was “hard to grasp” being cut from the team before the season after having a solid training camp, and shares his motivation to stick with the big club.

With Murray on long-term injured reserve, the Leafs suddenly have the cap space available to recall extra players. Defenceman Victor Mete and gritty winger Wayne Simmonds joined Robertson at practice.

“With that comes more competition and more accountability,” Keefe said. “I think that is healthy for our team. It keeps guys honest in terms of keeping their spot, whether you are a guy who has been playing or if you’re a guy who has been called up … Competition is healthy. It was a difficult thing having 20 guys.”

The recall caps an emotional week for the 34-year-old Simmonds, who has never played in the AHL during his career.

“At first you’re kind of shocked,” he said. “You’re stunned. But, it doesn’t matter. The games don’t stop. Life doesn’t stop. You got to keep going. You got to keep going no matter what. You never know what’s going to happen, right? You’ve seen around the league there’s been a bunch of injuries and a lot of teams who are playing guys short because of the salary cap. For me, it was keeping my mind right, staying ready and just working.”

After clearing waivers, Simmonds skated with Toronto’s development and return-to-play staff instead of joining the Marlies. Would he contemplate playing in the AHL in the future?

“I’m not saying it’s a no-go,” he said. “At this point in time in the season, I thought it was best for myself to get some skill work in and make sure that I was ready if an opportunity presented itself so that’s what I chose to do.”

Simmonds wants to play for a contending team and, ideally, that will be in Toronto.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m here for these guys,” he said. “I’ve poured my heart and soul into this team over the last two years and that’s not going to change. This is where I want to be and I’ll do anything in my power to stay with this organization. So, that’s where we’re at.”

Simmonds determined to stay with Leafs: ‘I poured my heart and soul into this team’

After being recalled from the AHL, Wayne Simmonds describes his emotions after being waived by the Leafs prior to the season, shares what he wants to bring to the team, explains that he “poured his heart and soul” into the club and wants to be with Toronto, and much more.

After a nightmare opener in Montreal, the defence pairing of Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl appears to be back on track.

“It’s just sticking with the same process,” Holl said. “Obviously, we didn’t love our game on Wednesday and, as a team, we weren’t as good as we could be. Every game is a new game and a new opportunity.”

On Saturday, Holl made the most of the opportunity. He scored the game-winning goal against the Ottawa Senators. Your humble correspondent suggested that’s not what the stay-at-home defenceman is known for.

“What!” the 30-year-old said in mock disgust, which elicited laughs from the assembled media. “I’m just kidding.”

Holl’s goal late in the third period of a tie game came from the top of the Senators’ crease. It was only the latest example of the Leafs’ blueliners joining the attack and creating chaos in the offensive zone.

“Mitch [Marner] made a really nice play,” Holl said. “He was climbing up top and Muzz had switched over so I kind of saw an opportunity if he wanted a drop pass or, if not, I would just take somebody with me. But turns out two guys went with Mitchy and I had a little space to get to the net and was able to put it in.”

Michael Bunting picked up the primary assist.

“Holler was coming down the wall there and he made a nice play to me low,” Bunting said. “I knew, obviously, it was under two minutes to play and I just wanted to get it to the net and he crashed.”

Did Bunting get a stick on the puck before it went in?

“I have no idea, to be honest. It was just a clusterf—k. Oh, sorry!” he said with a smile. “Cluster. And, I have no idea, but I think Holler got that. We got the win. That’s all that matters.”

Muzzin, meanwhile, made a nice slap pass to set up a David Kampf goal late in the second period.

“Great look by Muzz to find the stick,” Keefe said.

The Leafs are now 14-0-0 when Kampf, a defensive-minded centre, scores.

“I don’t know if he has scored an unimportant goal for us in his time here,” Keefe said. “He finds ways to score big goals at key times. That is a nice characteristic to have … It is not what he does and it’s not his thing, but when there is a puck in the offensive zone and there is an opportunity to get your stick down and redirect it, it is a simple play that we practice quite frequently. In that moment, it is what it called for. He was there.”

Lines at Sunday’s practice:

Bunting – Matthews – Marner
Robertson – Tavares – Malgin
Engvall – Kerfoot – Jarnkrok
Aston-Reese – Kampf – Aube-Kubel
Simmonds

Rielly – Brodie
Muzzin – Holl
Giordano – Sandin
Mete

Samsonov
Kallgren

Power play units at Sunday’s practice:

First unit: Rielly, Matthews, Marner, Jarnkrok, Tavares
Second unit: Giordano, Malgin, Robertson, Kerfoot, Bunting

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