With goaltender James Reimer signed on for another three years in Toronto, the fate of Jonas Gustavsson's National Hockey League career hangs in the balance.
As the opening day of free agency inches ever closer, general manager Brian Burke will soon have to decide whether to retain Gustavsson as the team's back-up goaltender. If Burke opts to sign a veteran goaltender in his place, Gustavsson will either be lost to the waiver wire in hopes of some American Hockey League experience, or rot in the press box for a full season. The uncertainty of whether Reimer can continue his stellar play between the pipes will ultimately contribute in Burke's decision regarding Gustavsson's future. Is it logical for the Leafs to enter next season with two unproven goaltenders? It's debatable, and there's certainly many sides to analyze such a dilemma.
If last season was indeed a sophomore slump for Gustavsson, then does he not have the potential to challenge Reimer for the number-one job? It was only a year ago when many had high hopes the 26-year-old would develop into the Leafs' goaltender of the future. A couple of injuries and inconsistency issues later, and Gustavsson is the forgotten man in Toronto and suddenly expendable. Before I defend the once-coveted Swedish goaltender, let's take a look at who's available in the free agency pool thus far for veteran back-up goaltenders: Johan Hedberg (38 years old), Chris Osgood (38), Marty Turco (35), Ty Conklin (35), Mathieu Garon (33), Alex Auld (30) and Brian Boucher (34). The upside in acquiring one of the goaltenders listed above is that they could likely handle playing 20 to 30 games while aiding Reimer with any hardships he may encounter while handling the pressure-cooker workload of the Leafs' starting goaltender job. The downside is the obvious exclusion of Gustavsson in the Leafs' plans moving forward. Is the guidance of a veteran goaltender integral to Reimer's development in the NHL, or can the healthy competition between two young goaltenders provide the foundation for prolonged success between the pipes?
It is a question Burke will soon have to answer---among many more---as July 1 approaches. If he chooses to enter next season with a goaltending tandem of Reimer and Gustavsson, it is a near certainty that some veteran goaltenders will still be looking for work---Jose Theodore was signed in October last season--- should Gustavsson falter early.
It's worth noting that Gustavsson was not a sieve throughout the entire 2010-11 campaign, though. Although he only played three games in October, he registered a .921 save-percentage and a 2.36 goals-against-average. In November, his workload increased to nine games, and he posted a respectable .912 save-percentage with a 2.66 GAA. It's the following two months that Gustavsson's play deteriorated drastically. He posted a .868 save-percentage in December (nine games) and a .841 save-percentage in January (two games), respectively. Gustavsson was then assigned to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL for a two-week conditioning stint, in which he performed admirably, recording a .955 save-percentage and a 1.14 GAA in five games.
It's accurate to say Gustavsson has had an inconsistent tenure in the NHL thus far. He's had his ups and downs in the 65 games he's played, but was his mediocre performance in the second-half of last season really indicative of his potential? Or was it simply a young goaltender enduring growing pains as he finds his place in the NHL?
He certainly wouldn't be the first goaltender that needs more time to develop.
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