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Matt Murray eager to turn page with Maple Leafs

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There were no childhood photos and merely the faintest memories from an adolescence spent cheering for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it means something to Matt Murray.

Toronto's new starting netminder would reveal as much — even if he stopped short of waxing poetic over a lifetime spent dreaming of the opportunity to wear the Maple Leafs' crest in his brief welcoming session with the media Monday afternoon.

"Putting on that jersey for the first time is going to be something real special for me," Murray admitted, momentarily satisfying the many media members listening in.

Part of that reason that he didn't bite on each and every one of the many questions aimed at romanticizing what had been may be that the past is a complicated thing for Murray and that the future is presumably far more comfortable to focus on.

Murray had a dream start to his career, catching on with the Pittsburgh Penguins during their prime seasons part-way through the 2015-16 campaign. He proved to be a more reliable option than franchise legend Marc-Andre Fleury, shouldering most of the load in consecutive Stanley Cup championship runs. Part of the legend on Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and one of the very best teams of the salary cap era was built on his early-career performances.

It was everything all at once for Murray.

Then things got tough.

Murray lost his father suddenly to an illness the season following Pittsburgh's defence of the Stanley Cup. Injuries followed. A pandemic hit. Then it was a trade to the Ottawa Senators. It seemed like a second chance he needed after being squeezed, himself, from Pittsburgh, and the Senators believed enough in Murray's talent to sign him to a four-year deal worth $25 million.

But there were more injuries, inconsistencies, and the two sides quickly proved to be incompatible for reasons both made public and kept behind closed doors with Murray appearing in just 47 games across two forgettable seasons.

A Maple Leafs fan in his childhood, Matt Murray is now touted to solve the franchise's issues in the net and steer the team towards playoff success. (Getty Images)
A Maple Leafs fan in his childhood, Matt Murray has now been touted to solve the franchise's issues in the net and steer the team towards playoff success. (Getty Images)

With that partnership mercifully coming to a close, now more legacy hinges on the success or failure of Murray, and a 28-year-old netminder who has seen and experienced more than most goalies with full term in NHL history.

More specifically, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has laid his biggest bet to this point, turning to another former member of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds to provide performance adequate enough as to not waste another season in the Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander era.

There are reasons to be both hopeful and cynical about the decision, with perhaps the main driver behind the decision — familiarity — at the forefront of that dichotomy.

It's possible no team has more institutional knowledge on Murray than the Leafs.

And that's not because Murray spent four seasons in the Soo when Dubas and Sheldon Keefe were starting into their executive and coaching careers, respectively. But instead because his relationship with another key member of the Maple Leafs' organization, the team’s head of goalie evaluation and development, Jon Elkin, predates his history with anyone around the game at a reasonable competitive level.

Murray started working with Elkin at the age of 10 as one of his many clients around the Ontario-area minor hockey scene. Elkin is probably just as impactful as anyone in Murray's development into a high-end goaltending prospect, and surely he was highly influential in a courtship process that has played over a reasonably lengthy time period.

"They're a group that will really be able to help me and push me to my maximum potential," Murray said of the familiar faces within the franchise.

That so many former members of the Soo Greyhounds have been tapped as potential solutions from a franchise which two figureheads rose through the ranks in the Northern Ontario junior market feeds the skepticism surrounding this move, as well as with previous decisions.

In fact, the Leafs are effectively giving up on Murray's brief former platoon-mate in the Soo, Jack Campbell, with his acquisition, prolonging what has been a largely fruitless cycle. It is as though the Leafs are without trust of anything outside of their own unique orbit — a distrust which has proven to be limiting.

But the difference with Murray is that there is a history of success in moments that matter.

If the mechanisms that helped mould Murray into an NHL-calibre are once again at his disposal, perhaps he can recapture that same form that helped him accomplish so much, so soon.

It's a massive gamble, there is no doubt.

But it's not being made blindly.

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