Jonas Gustavsson has no illusions.
The Maple Leafs goaltender realizes the final 29 games of the regular season are crucial.
Not so much for the Leafs to try to make the playoffs — with 44 points, they are in 14th place in the Eastern Conference and sit 11 points back of the eighth-place New York Rangers. Even a hot streak or two probably would not be enough for Toronto to make a serious playoff run.
But Gustavsson will be given a prime opportunity to show he can be the Leafs’ goalie of the future.
“I know it is a big part of the season for me coming up,” said Gustavsson, who will start on Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre against the Los Angeles Kings. “My contract is up after the season and I know I have to play good to show I want to stay here.”
There’s a parallel that can be drawn, in a sense, between Gustavsson and Kings netminder Jonathan Quick. They’re both young — Gustavsson is 25, Quick is 24. Both are heading to Vancouver for the Olympics presumably for third-string or backup roles, Gustavsson for Sweden and Quick for the U.S.
The difference is that Quick has been groomed in the Kings system after he was drafted by L.A. in 2005 with the 72nd choice. He won 21 games last season after apprenticing in the minors, and has a contract that will take him through the 2012-13 season.
Gustavsson, of course, was a hot free agent who was pursued by several teams last summer before Leafs general manager Brian Burke’s determination paid off and he got the Swede’s signature on a one-year deal.
However, where the future for the Leafs won’t be good unless Burke makes further changes, the Kings have a wealth of solid young players, including Quick. He takes a 27-16-3 record into the game, with a 2.59 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage.
“There are a bunch of guys who have been together for a few years,” Quick said. “It’s great to be a part of it. You can see the plan (GM) Dean Lombardi put in place here. It’s starting to work.”
Tuesday’s game marks the first visit by the Kings to the Air Canada Centre since Dec. 6, 2005, and it will give the majority of Leafs fans their first live look at young L.A. stars such as defenceman Drew Doughty and centre Anze Kopitar.
One Leafs player for whom the pressure builds is forward Phil Kessel. Since Nov. 3, when he made his Leafs debut after recovering from a shoulder injury, Kessel leads the NHL with 186 shots on goal. But he has just 15 goals, with just one in his pat 12 games.