A few years ago, when Brian Burke wrangled in the top goalie in the world outside the NHL, Maple Leaf fans thought their days of watching a string of hapless netminders like JS Aubin, Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala were at an end. (Five minute break for everyone who immediately got sick to their stomach remembering the carousel of God-awful goalkeepers that stunk their way in and out of Toronto like a bunch of Occupy Wall Streeters – done throwing up? OK, let’s go) After an emergency heart procedure, Jonas Gustavsson stepped into the starting role, and showed a great deal of promise at the close of the 2009-10 season, leading even more Leaf fans to believe he was ready to take on the starting role.
Unfortunately, 2010-11 was a brutal year for the Monster, as he finished the season with a 6-13 record, a brutal .880 save percentage and a less-than-Monsterlike 3.29 GAA. Alot of that had to do with a poor team playing in front of him over the first half of the season, but he wasn’t exactly confidence-inspiring. Poor rebound control, a lot of soft goals, and an uncanny ability to lose track of his position in the net hamstrung his performance all year long, and his NHL season ended with a horrific 7-2 loss at MSG. Sent down on a conditioning stint to the Marlies, he was never given another chance, and rightfully so.
This season, his first start came in Boston, where he suffered the Leafs’ first loss of the season in unceremonious fashion, allowing 6 goals, albeit on 43 shots. Fortunately for him (unfortunately for the rest of us), James Reimer was knocked out of the Leafs’ win over Montreal a few Saturdays ago, thrusting him headlong into the starting role until Reimer regains his health. Putting aside the debacle in Boston, his numbers still aren’t awe-inspiring, as he still can’t get the save percentage up over .900, or the GAA under 3.00. At the same time, though, from watching the games, if you take out the apparently inevitable softie he gives up once a night, the rest of his body of work is pretty damn solid, spectacular even at times.
We still don’t have a definite timetable on Reimer’s return, so Gustavsson will likely get a couple more chances to prove himself, and with games against New Jersey, Columbus and Boston this week, hopefully snag a couple of wins and maybe some revenge on the Bruins. I doubt he plays both games on the road in Jersey and Ohio, but with Reimer looking like he’ll be back this week, Gustavsson will have to turn in a solid effort wherever it is.
I don’t pretend to be a goalie analyst, but I sure have critiqued a few of them in my day. Gustavsson’s biggest problems may be more mental than anything else. He’s difficult to compare to Reimer, because the two of them are so fundamentally different in just about every way. Reimer is the typical Francois Allaire pupil, positionally sound and reliant on solid positioning to make his job easier. When Gustavsson is on his game, he has the ability to make saves solely based on his talent level. He’s got a huge frame, and has the capacity to cover huge areas of the cage with pretty decent quickness. Unfortunately, it seems that at some point, usually early in his game, he loses focus or something and ends up giving up a goal that you’d be booing your Thursday night beer league keeper for. Thankfully, this season, he’s demonstrated much more toughness and has been able to bounce back with some strong performances. I don’t know how you can train a goalie not to give up soft goals, but if Gustavsson could eliminate those mental lapses from his game, I think myself and the rest of Leaf nation would feel a whole lot better seeing him give Reimer more than just injury backup. Until he does, we’re all in for a Monster rollercoaster ride.