December 28, 2010
The Monster has gone missing
By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency
It is more than a season into the great Jonas Gustavsson experiment and it is impossible to determine whether he can ever live up to his nickname.
Some nights, he looks the part of Monster and too many nights not.
Some nights, he looks like he's ready to take the next step on the way to becoming a great National Hockey League goaltender, and too often it is one slide forward, two slides back, and more confusing business for the forever struggling Maple Leafs.
On Tuesday night, Gustavsson played in his 62nd National Hockey League game and it remains hard to know what make of him. That should be enough playing time to develop a book of some kind. But this book is incomplete and the final chapters, really, could go either way.
The Leafs have yet to play half a season and already they've seen three different Gustavssons.
There was the Gustavsson who began the season and looked to be chasing the puck, overplaying the game.
Then there was the Gustavsson who really looked sharp, the goalie living up to the hype that surrounded his high-profile signing in Toronto. That lasted for a few weeks.
Against Carolina, and in a few games lately, Gustavssson has seemed off his mark. Too deep in the goal. Letting in cheap ones. Not the kind of goaltending the Leafs need now, and will certainly need in the future.
Carolina scored three goals on eight shots Tuesday night and no matter the circumstances, that isn't good enough. Gustavsson settled down slightly after that, although he looked rather jumpy on some routine shots on goal, but he doesn't give off the body language of a goaltender in control. Ken Dryden, the picture of calm, used to lean on his blocker on top of the goalie stick. It became his pose.
Gustavsson, lately, has been best known for smashing his goal stick over the post, which doesn't speak well of his composure, no matter what the reason for his tantrum. That's not something a coach would recommend. And the thing is, Gustavsson is no kid. He's not Carey Price. He's 26 years old. He's on a one-year contract. The Leafs, with Jean-Sebastien Giguere struggling with injuries and his own difficulties in net -- and an enormous price tag this season -- will almost certainly let Giguere go the free agent route come the summer.
But what to do with Gustavsson?
At this stage, it's little more than a guessing game.
Gustavsson is 40th among NHL goaltenders in wins, 39th in the overly important save percentage category and 35th in goals against average.
There's not a single statistical piece of evidence that leaves the impression he can be a great one. Except that every once in a while he does something athletic, something special, that leaves the impression he could get there. But that impression can, at times, be momentary.
On the ice Tuesday night, it was clear there is a difference in levels between Cam Ward's commanding play behind a somewhat horrendous Carolina Hurricanes defence. Ward took three -- maybe four -- goals away from the Leafs by making the kind of saves that excite fans and bring adrenalin to your team and your fans. The Leafs, in need of help, at every position, still need more help in goal to take the next ste; up the NHL ladder.
It may come from Gustavsson and just as likely it may not. It is probably time, with Giguere hurt, for coach Ron Wilson to take a look at James Reimer, the backup du jour, and see what he brings. The rest will probably do Gustavsson some good, if not just to shake him up. The competition, if Reimer plays well Thursday against Columbus, always makes goaltenders work harder.
But the plan is for Gustavsson to be the goalie of the future, even if he's not cooperating with the plan. You cheer for him because of all he has been through, the health issues and all, but it's still up to him to get better.
That's the one thing that needs to be guaged with every Leafs game. Who, if anyone, is getting better?
Gustavsson made a game-changing save on Tuomo Ruuttu in the third period. He needs to make more of them.
The time for him to make a difference is getting closer to now or never.