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Gustavsson's Numbers Belie The Facts

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

I’m thinking Jonas Gustavsson hasn’t spent any time clearing off his mantle in anticipation of winning the Vezina or Calder trophies.

He is way down the list of goalies in any measurable commodity.
Gustavsson’s save percentage of .901 is 32nd among 45 goaltenders.

His goals against puts him in about the same spot, It’s a not-quite-respectable 2.98.

But there is mounting evidence that Gustavsson deserves the bulk of the starts this season, no matter how he struggles.

While Gustavsson’s numbers are far from great, those of Vesa Toskala, who plays behind the same defence, are the worst in the league.

Second, at 25, he is seven years younger than Toskala. Forget about how much longer he will play. Consider instead the experience base Gustavsson is spotting the veteran while nonetheless outperforming him.

Being a rookie goalie in the NHL is tough. Being a rookie goalie from Europe is ridiculous.

Only one rookie European goalie, Toskala’s old San Jose teammate Evgeni Nabokov has won the Calder. No rookie European goalie has won the Vezina.

Think about that. Nicklas Lidstrom has won six Norris Trophies in Detroit and will stand among the elite when he retires. Zdeno Chara is the league’s ultimate shut-down defender.  The league’s most exciting player, Alex Ovechkin, is proudly Russian.  Henrik Sedin , a Swede, leads the NHL in points and the most dynamic forwards to wear the Maple Leafs since the early 1990s were a Swede, Mats Sundin and the great Russian Alexander Mogilny.

And yet the number of European goalies who were successful from the get-go pretty well ends at Nabokov. It took trades for Dominik Hasek and Mikka Kirprusoff to find stardom.

Clearly, it is harder for a goalie than a position player to make the jump to the NHL. Here are some theories why.

First, the schedule. Gustavsson’s Farjestads BK Karlstad team played 55 games last season. Gustavsson played 50 of them. But unlike forwards and defensemen whose attention can wander on the bench, the goalie is on the ice nearly every minute of every game.  A number one goalie will play 60 plus games in the NHL. Dramatically up the travel and workload fatigue becomes the first of several factors augering against the jump to the NHL. 

The rink size. The width of the rink is infinitely more complex for the goalie to negotiate.  Imagine if I made your house eight percent wider. You’d reach for a cup and find it feet away. You would stumble into walls in the dark.

That’s what a European goalie has to face. In North America, shots come from closer in. With no room to dally on the outside, NHL players take the most direct route to the net. The angles and shooting lanes all have to relearned. It’s not impossible, of course, but it stands to reason that it would take time.

NHL shooters are culled from one country but from the hockey world. They are immensely better. A phenomenon in Sweden, Gustavsson is finding out how many holes he had in his game and the sophistication of NHL electronic scouting means any flaw can be detected and exploited. Goalies have 20 players to chart. Goalies have one.

Shot blocking can make the goalie’s life harder. In Europe, it isn’t unusual to concede a shot while defencemen form a corridor to allow the netminder a clear view. It makes sense for Europe where the forwards are generally less skilled and the point of attack is further away because of the size of the rink. That practice is rejected in the NHL in favor of shotblocking, even if the shot has already cleared one or two defenders.

And as if these elements weren’t enough to undermine Gustavsson’s confidence, he must play in front of a team whose defensive zone coverage has often been shabby. Watch him. Often he seems to be playing the man behind him, not the shooter. His lack of confidence shows when he overplays the puck or , for no discernable reason, tries to shoot it out of danger.

These aren’t alibis, just factors to consider. The numbers haven’t been kind for Jonas Gustavsson. The facts are a bit more encouraging.
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