Maple Leafs provide Anthony Stolarz opportunity he's waited his entire career for (2024)

Anthony Stolarz was sitting calmly in the Anaheim Ducks video room one afternoon in 2021, throwing around ideas for designs of his new goalie mask with Ducks goalie coach Sudarshan Maharaj. As is often the case with Stolarz, he listened a little more than he spoke.

Stolarz was asked about his inspiration for playing goalie.

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And as he contemplated his answer, Stolarz’s mind drifted far from goalie masks, beyond the walls of that video room and back to the state of New Jersey.

That’s where John and Karol Stolarz, his blue-collar parents, reside. They might not have sent him to the most exclusive skills camps, but their support throughout his entire junior and a winding NHL career of short-term, two-way contracts on near-league minimum money has been unrelenting. It’s his parents’ ability to grind through careers – John worked as a shipping clerk in a chemical plant – that has always inspired Anthony.

Stolarz let his inspiration, and a dream he’d been carrying with him through an at times trying NHL life, out almost mid-sentence with Maharaj.

“He told me he just wanted just one good contract so he could buy his parents a house,” Maharaj said. “That’s been his dream. That’s all he wanted. And that sums up what kind of person he is.”

After parts of seven NHL seasons split between four teams, seven stints in the AHL and a few games in the ECHL just to test his mettle that much more, the 30-year-old Stolarz may finally now be able to realize his dream.

Just over a week after winning a Stanley Cup with the Florida Panthers, the 6-foot-6 goalie inked a two-year, $5-million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday. It is Stolarz’s largest NHL contract. It’s also an opportunity to likely play more games than he ever has in an NHL season as part of a tandem with Joseph Woll.

And, even more likely, it allows Stolarz to finally get his parents a new home. That’s what he’s been grinding through his career for.

“I never take things for granted,” Stolarz said of his career. “It’s obviously a privilege to play in this league. I smile every time I’m on the ice.”

Ahead of signing in Toronto, the story of Stolarz’s career has been his availability. His .914 career NHL save percentage is more than respectable.

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But his game totals? Not so much.

Stolarz has played just 109 games in his NHL career, which, if anything, suggests more of a meandering lifelong backup than someone ready to step into a tandem role in a continually trying market for goalies. Those who have worked with Stolarz think he could be a bonafide NHL starter should the opportunity come, and, most notably, should he remain injury-free. That’s because injuries hampered his early career and slowed his ability to develop into a true starting goalie.

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After being drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the 2012 NHL Draft, Stolarz suffered an MCL tear and ensuring surgery during his first NHL season in 2016-17.

A second surgery on a separate injury to repair a torn meniscus followed that year.

Not only did the injuries and surgeries dampen a promising NHL start (a .928 save percentage through his first seven games), it meant Stolarz played just four professional games in 2017-18. By this point, the Flyers had pushed their chips in on Carter Hart as their starting goalie of the present and future. The likelihood of Stolarz getting his professional development back on track with limited starts was low.

A brief stop in Edmonton after a midseason trade in 2018-19 was fruitless.

But Maharaj had scouted Stolarz throughout previous seasons and saw something in him: A unicorn of a goalie who towered over his peers but simply hadn’t been given the runway to better understand how to utilize his frame.

Stolarz had the tools.And when the Ducks signed him as a free agent in 2019, hesimply lacked an instruction manual.

Maharaj remembers flying to New Jersey to watch Stolarz continue athletic therapy and take part in offseason workouts. He saw a goalie whose injuries hadn’t truly healed the way Stolarz had hoped. Given the nature of the injuries to his leg and knee, his balance and movement weren’t where they could, or needed, to be. Maharaj had Stolarz come to Anaheim in the offseason to begin working with the Ducks sports science staff so he could equalize his leg strength and mobility.

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“It gave him an opportunity to hit the reset button,” Maharaj said.

While John Gibson and Ryan Miller owned the Ducks net in 2019-20, Stolarz’s focus through a season with the AHL’s San Diego Gulls was on learning how to utilize his new health in the best way possible. He had to learn how to make use of his unique physique in goal.

“Because he missed some time, he hadn’t had the opportunity to develop his technique that big goalies have to develop,” Maharaj said.

Even now at 26 with limited NHL games under his belt, Stolarz did not want to rush the process. He listened, and without any ego, showed a work ethic that multiple coaches who spoke to The Athletic raved about.

His 39 AHL games were the most he’d played in a season after his injuries. And through it, Stolarz’s improvements suggested he had learned to play bigger than ever, both figuratively and literally.

“Big goalies have to learn to play closed. As a result of his injuries, he didn’t get that opportunity to develop those very finite skills. And now he has developed that and he has some more playing time under him. You’ll see a lot less in the way of holes when he’s playing, and less stretching and reaching in the way when he was younger,” Maharaj said.

Those AHL games in 2019-20 were essentially his last in the minor leagues.

He looked like a more than capable NHL goalie the next two seasons in Anaheim, but John Gibson’s monster eight-year contract meant starts were again limited. The same went for last season in Florida behind Sergei Bobrovsky. Though in fairness to Stolarz, that he rocked a .935 save percentage through the final three months of the regular season might have put him in contention for playoff starts on many other teams.

In Toronto, he’ll now have the chance to get what he’s patiently waited for: The most prominent role of his career.

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Sure, there will be questions following Stolarz about his lack of NHL games as his tenure with the Leafs begins. Asking questions of goalies, after all, has become a second language for many people in Toronto going back through Ilya Samsonov, Jack Campbell and Frederik Andersen.

Yet he brings a blend of experience, maturity, size, skill and resilience to Toronto. That could all make him a tailor-made true tandem goalie with the young Woll.

Stolarz has seen first-hand how fleeting success can be in the NHL. That kind of mentorship role should help Woll, who – with a new contract extension into 2028 – remains the goalie of the future for the Leafs.

“Obviously only one of us can play, and you want to get as many starts as you can. When my name’s called, I want to go in there and try to seize the opportunity,” Stolarz said. “But at the same time too, when I’m not, I pride myself in being a good teammate, and I’m going to support (Woll) and push him throughout the year.”

His size and unique shot-stopping ability with his frame could end up seeing the Leafs looking better in goal compared to when they had the inspiring but still unpredictable Samsonov in net over the last two seasons.

And of course, the resilience baked into Stolarz after working through injuries could manifest in a battle-ready approach on the ice.

“He’s had to deal with adversity his whole career. That has forged more of a mental capacity than most guys,” Maharaj said.

That should help him in Toronto, where his career could change completely.

But even if it does, Stolarz certainly won’t forget to return to that new home in New Jersey for his parents. It’s the new Stanley Cup champion’s plan, after all, to spend his day with the trophy in New Jersey and “share it with the people who helped get me here.”

(Top photo of Anthony Stolarz and Auston Matthews: Sam Navarro / USA Today)

Maple Leafs provide Anthony Stolarz opportunity he's waited his entire career for (2)Maple Leafs provide Anthony Stolarz opportunity he's waited his entire career for (3)

Joshua Kloke is a staff writer who has covered the Maple Leafs and Canadian soccer for The Athletic since 2016. Previously, he was a freelance writer for various publications, including Sports Illustrated. Follow Joshua on Twitter @joshuakloke

Maple Leafs provide Anthony Stolarz opportunity he's waited his entire career for (2024)
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