Toskala's time has come

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

The question for Vesa Toskala to answer now: Is he Finnish or Finished?

There are no excuses anymore. There is no question about who will play. For now, by acclamation and by injury, he will get every opportunity to re-establish himself as the Maple Leafs goaltender of choice.

This is the chance every athlete asks for. This is his time. Now all he has to do is his job.

That has been the problem with Toskala. After one excellent season in Toronto, little has gone his way. Last season, he played hurt and he played lousy. One may have led to the other. But which came first remains a matter of speculation.

His play, however, was questionable enough to have him called out by general manager Brian Burke, who doubted his work ethic, only to determine afterwards that there were real injuries involved with the goalie. There was some doubt about Toskala's timing in pulling the plug on last season that some have certainly wondered about it.

Whatever the reason, his play in his second Leafs season was weak enough to lead to two large splashes in the off-season. One, Burke went out and hired legendary goaltending coach, Francois Allaire. That was no accident. And two, the Leafs won the hot free-agent pursuit for the now Tender Monster, Jonas Gustavsson, he of the heart and groin problems. It's possible that if the Leafs truly believed in Toskala -- he was a John Ferguson acquisition and signing -- that neither off-season move would have been completely necessary.

And after a rather ordinary training camp, followed by a spotty beginning to the season, Toskala has come full circle in a so short a time. He has gone from sure-thing starter, to doubtful starter, to job-may-be-in-jeopardy, to starter by circumstance for a team struggling in every conceivable way as the new season is all of three games old. To date, the Leafs, at least, have been consistent: They've looked weak in goal, weak on defence, weak up front. At least there are 79 games left to change that: Enough time for Toskala to rebuild his game and his reputation. Even here in the hockey hysteria over-reaction capital of the world.

Bothered coacx

Toskala hadn't even finished his first game of the regular season before the questions were asked. And he didn't get to finish his second start that only turned up the heat, which bothered coach Ron Wilson, who only likes it when he turns up the heat.

Wilson, at least, has a history with Toskala that extends beyond the borders of Mississauga. This is the sixth season he has coached the goalie. Most of that time, Toskala was a backup to Evgeny Nabokov in San Jose.

On occasion, in two of those San Jose seasons, Toskala looked the part of No. 1 goaltender, playing on a strong team, behind a relatively strong defence.

Now, Wilson has had Toskala for a season and three games in Toronto.

Almost all that time, he has seemed off, looking too small to play the butterfly style, too vulnerable on high shots, too often chasing the play on anything that went side to side. The year before Wilson arrived, the last season of Paul Maurice, Toskala played differently, an almost all-star whose $4-million US contract matched his value. When Maurice and goaltending coach Steve McKichan left, so it seemed, did Toskala's confidence.

And now, at 32 years of age, it's not like Toskala is any kid about to find himself. He's been playing NHL games for the past eight seasons.

He can act all huffy and entitled about how he had been treated this early season by his coaching staff, by fans and by the media but the truth is, he is now in control of his own goaltending.

Play well and the people will shut up. Play well and the doubters will stop doubting. Play well and that monster on your back won't be waiting for The Monster to return.

It's up to Vesa Toskala. The rest will take care of itself.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca


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