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Can Gustavsson's Poise Outpace Toskala?

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
In poker they call it a tell.

It’s a movement or a series of moments and it can be as simple as a player raising an index finger.

For Jonas Gustavsson, the tell is how he stands rock still in his crease or to be more accurate how he doesn’t.

Gifted with ridiculous explosiveness that belies a six-foot-three frame, Gustavsson has all the elements needed for an excellent NHL goalie. Leaf General Manager Brian Burke would no doubt second that assessment since he staged an irresistable campaign to sign him as a free agent last summer. 

He is going to be a good goalie. Just ask the Swedish hockey federation who chose Gustavsson to backup starter Henrik Lundqvist. What we are talking about here isn’t the destination so much as the journey.

And that’s one of the key competing interests facing Leafs coach Ron Wilson as the Leafs prepare for Wednesday’s game in Edmonton.

If you measure save percentage, the best of the imperfect measures used to quantify ability, Gustavsson’s .905 percentage is a good start.

Inexperienced in the NHL game and playing for the first time on a smaller surface, Gustavsson has fared surprisingly well.

But he has encountered trouble by the boatload when he drifts from his net and tries to fire a puck up ice. More grievous is his habit of overcommiting to one side on a wraparound. Even more grievous is his worst sin, a habit of losing the person with the puck in an attempt to seal off enemy players looking for a tip-in.

Time will fix most of these faults. The Leafs employ Francois Allaire who didn’t invent butterfly goaltending but nonetheless perfected it. Another half season working with the same cast of defencemen and several more tours of the league should leave the Maple Leafs with their best homegrown goalie prospect since Felix Potvin.

The Leafs plan seemed pretty simple. Vesa Toskala would be considered the starter and tutor until Gustavsson wrestled the job from him. The Leafs and Toskala could decide whether they remained a good fit in the summer. By then, Gustavsson would be ready to assume the job

The trouble is, Toskala’s .869 save percentage is the worst of the league’s 47 netminders. And while he enjoyed a good game in Pittsburgh in the Leafs exemplary win over the Penguins, his 3.76 goals against average is also dead last in the league.

Imagine you are Ron Wilson. Your team is three points out of the playoffs after being left for dead. You want to develop Gustavsson at the right pace. His talent, and his shortcomings, jump out. But do you ride Toskala in consecutive days, easing the load on your rookie while pinning your playoff chances on a veteran often trying to rebound from ineffective play and injuries?

Or do you throw Gustavsson in and hope he negotiates the dangerous ground between becoming less active and more poised?

In professional sports, fairness isn’t a frequently used word. Maybe that’s because no matter what you do, it seems impossible to reckon who you are being fair to.

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