– October 22, 2011; Anthony Lopopolo, Contributor
There was a moment after practice when Toronto Maple Leafs’ back-up goaltender Jonas Gustavsson willingly spoke to a reporter about his aspiration to claim the team’s No. 1 position. The words were not as meaningful as the place he spoke them in, sitting right beside James Reimer while proclaiming his ambitions. The Monster may be confident about his chances, but isn’t entirely fair to himself.
“I know I’m going to be a better goalie,” Gustavsson told the National Post last week. “That’s what I’ve always been saying. My goal is to be the starter here, to be a really good goalie. It might take a few years. It might go quick. But I’m positive with the way I’m working, in the end I’m going to be that goalie I want to be.”
With Reimer as the unquestionable starter in the city, Gustavsson is still chasing the lofty objective he set for himself since he began his NHL career in Toronto. But before he can start games, the 26-year-old has to learn how to win games as a back-up.
In his first start of the 2011-12 season, which involved a 6-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Thursday, Gustavsson could not make enough saves to keep the Leafs competitive and in the game. Much about the inflated score can be blamed on his defencemen, whose sloppiness on the edges of Gustavsson’s crease and all-around sluggishness in the defensive zone allowed Boston’s forwards to move the puck easily. Indeed, the decision by head coach Ron Wilson to throw him into a game against the Stanley Cup champion and without any real confidence can also be debated. But Gustavsson’s outing against the Bruins isn’t an anomaly.
Dating back to December 2010, Gustavsson has lost eight of his 10 starts and surrendered 46 goals. On more than one occasion last year, his goals-against average soared to an unhealthy 6.77 and on only few occasions did he post a save percentage above .900. These are worrying statistics. Despite facing a lot of heart complications during his stay in Toronto, Gustavsson has not proven himself an adequate backup as of late, let alone deserving of a starting role on the roster.
But after a single game, only so much can be deducted. Gustavsson did make 37 saves and did not look especially poor or uncomfortable, just swamped by a barrage of shots that his defence could not limit. For all their scoring potency — the Leafs are ranked within the Top 10 in goals for — Toronto is still conceding amongst the highest goal totals in the league.
And considering the Leafs have allowed five goals or more per game twice this season already, Gustavsson should not be the only player convicted in an otherwise solid start to a year with greater expectations and possible playoff implications.
There is still time to reassess Gustavsson, who is playing in the last year of his contract. Unfortunate and untimely heart problems have interrupted his goal to attain the No. 1 spot. This season will be crucial for both Leafs management and The Monster himself in determining whether Toronto is the right fit for him, and vice-versa.
It is only fair to give him more games to try to work himself out of his current funk. Looking for a replacement right now, as some mentioned on Twitter, would be irrational and unnecessary. And after years of searching for a starting goaltender, the Leafs should feel privileged to only feel a bit of concern over their back-up position.