Jonas Gustavsson won his first game of the season---going back to last season he hadn't won since Jan.6---and looked sharp in the victory over the New York Rangers.
The decision to enter the season with James Reimer and Gustavsson between the pipes was a risky one by the Toronto Maple Leafs' management. Reimer and Gustavsson, as of now, have a combined 112 games of experience at the NHL level. But the Leafs also entered the season as the NHL's youngest club with an average age of 26.07, so perhaps its goaltending tandem should not come as a surprise. Gustavsson's in the final year of his contract, Reimer was re-signed for three more years, and there didn't appear to be a role for Jean-Sebastien Giguere. It seemed like the logical move for the Leafs.
But was letting Giguere walk the right choice? While he was underwhelming as a starting goaltender for the Leafs, recording a .900 save-percentage in 33 games, he was by no means a liability, and he was even willing to play back-up to Reimer. Regardless, the decision was clearly a vote of confidence in Gustavsson as the club's back-up goaltender. And, much like last season, it's difficult to gauge the 27-year-old's role in the NHL. In what has been an inconsistent tenure with the Leafs, confidence issues seem to be at the forefront of his career thus far. Gustavsson is capable of making tremendous saves due to his natural athleticism, but he's also prone to rebounds and poor positioning due to being over-active in the crease. While the NHL average in save-percentage is around .911, Gustavsson had a decent rookie campaign in 2009-10 with a .902 save-percentage and a 2.87 goals-against-average with 16 wins on a bad team. He followed that up, however, with an atrocious sophomore campaign, posting a .890 save-percentage with a 3.29 GAA on a strong team (in comparison to the previous season). This season, the Swedish netminder has been hung out to dry in a couple of occasions, but has also let in a number of soft goals. He looked solid in the loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday, and seemed to gain confidence as displayed in last night's victory.
But a couple of solid performances isn't enough to put Leafs fans' hearts at ease. In his last 18 games, Gustavsson has had a save percentage over .900 just three times. Previous to that stretch, he had recorded over a .900 save-percentage 25 times in 44 games. If there's one thing that's crystal clear when analyzing Gustavsson's career thus far, it's that inconsistency has been an ongoing issue. The statistics don't lie, and Gustavsson's career numbers aren't anything to write home about. He has a .897 save-percantage and a 3.08 GAA in 69 games. In comparison, Reimer has a .920 save-percentage and a 2.59 GAA in his 43 NHL games, but that is an unfair comparison based on the fact that Gustavsson is not expected, at least not anymore, to be anything more than a back-up goaltender.
But, on the topic of Reimer, does the inclusion of Gustavsson aid the Leafs or its starting netminder? Reimer was vocal in that Giguere helped him get adjusted to the NHL level, so with no veteran goaltender, and only one player over 30 on the entire team, what happens when Reimer struggles? What happens if Gustavsson can't support him in that scenario? This is not meant to be negative, but at some point there will be bumps along the road for Reimer. He seems to have the composure to get past such instances, but a veteran netminder can do nothing but aid not only Reimer, but a young Leafs team.
Nevertheless, the decision to hold on to Gustavsson was by no means the wrong one. If Reimer falters, who's to say Gustavsson doesn't breakout and grab the reins? The odds of that happening certainly aren't favorable, but nothing can be ruled out. After all, how many of us really expected Reimer to have the impact he has had thus far? But should Gustavsson continue his trend as an inconsistent, and somewhat unreliable goaltender, then perhaps the Leafs should look to outside help in the form of a veteran netminder. If Gustavsson is struggling by the trade deadline, is it too early to cut ties and place him on waivers (or bench him for the remainder of the season)? One would think that general manager Brian Burke will not re-sign him if he keeps up this pace. But confidence can go a long way. If Gustavsson can string together some solid performances, perhaps he has a future with the Leafs. And such a scenario would probably result in better efforts from his teammates, who seem to collapse and play with less confidence when "The Monster" is in between the pipes.
Gustavsson has drawn the ire from most Leafs fans at this point, but he still has plenty to prove. Whether that affects the development of Reimer is another story, but that's something the Leafs will have to deal with in that point of time.
If Gustavsson is in nets on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, currently the top team in the NHL, he will have a key opportunity to pave a better tomorrow.
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