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Leafs History Helps Lure Gustavsson

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Press Release | Video: Gustavsson Highlights | Burke Part 1 | Burke Part 2

Jonas Gustavsson is coming to Toronto because Borje Salming did.

That is not the only reason, not even close, but when asked about the arduous and ultimately succesful campaign to land the 24-year-old free agent goalie, Leafs GM Brian Burke acknowledged the trump card: Salming.

“The organization’s track record with Swedes and my track record with Swedes, we brought that up repeatedly,” Burke said in a press conference Tuesday. “The most famous Swede that ever played here called and talked to Jonas. Borje Salming called and spoke with him back around the World Championships. That came up in our conversations repeatedly. Swedes have had a great track record in Toronto and they love living here. “

That goes for Salming and Mats Sundin, one of the most popular players in club history.
And so it is that the rivalry between the Swedes and the Finns, (the smallest book on earth, one group will tell you is a history of the other’s war heroes) finds its way to the Maple Leafs crease. The incumbent, Vesa Toskala, 32, is coming off groin and hip surgery after the worst season of his pro career. The Leafs were last in the league last season in goals against and while a healthy portion of blame can be attributed to an atrocious penalty kill and poor defensive play, much of it goes back to goaltending.

Gustavsson, meanwhile, played for far-away Farjestads in the Swedish Elite League where he racked up a 1.96 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. He fared even better in the league championship where he posted a ludicrous 1.03 GAA and .961 save percentage.

Gustavsson also won a bronze medal with Sweden at the 2009 World Championship.

He is six-three and 192 pounds and nicknamed The Monster. A butterfly goalie, Gustavsson has outstanding athletic ability. He plays at the tip of the crease, the way good North American goalies do.

The Leafs, San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars were reputed to be among the teams after Gustavsson who, despite his promise, can be paid a maximum of about $900,000 with bonuses and salary under the collective bargaining agreement.

Burke met with Gustafsson here and in Sweden but booked a flight back to Scandinavia at the trading deadline in an effort to entice him to come.

Burke said a host of factors went into landing the talented netminder.

The Leafs boast Francois Allaire, the father of goaltending coaches, under contract. “It would be pretty demeaning to Francois Allaire to say that’s why we signed him,” Burke said. “I believe he’s the best goalie coach on the planet but clearly, it had ancillary value.”

Toronto still retains an element of Shangri-la to Swedish players. Had Gustavsson consulted YouTube as he no doubt did, the video of 20,000 applauding a teary Sundin would have painted a picture even the loquacious Burke could not have matched.

And then there is cold-hearted opportunity.

 “I assume the number one thing was opportunity,” Burke said.  “He saw that he wasn’t coming in to unseat a guy who had a long-term contract, had been here a long time and had a lot of success here.”

For the record, Toskala’s two seasons here have been more down than up. His contract is up after the upcoming season.

Going against Burke? The perception of the Toronto media.

"Interestingly, some of the other teams involved on all these free agents, that’s one of the negatives that other teams threw at Toronto, the negativity, the media, the scrutiny,” Burke said. “I told him ‘I don’t feel that way. When our teams struggle, they give it to the coach and the GM more than the players.’”

The Leafs defence features three new faces Francois Beauchemin, Garnet Exelby and Mike Komisarek to go along with Luke Schenn, Ian White,  Jeff Finger, Tomas Kaberle and Mike Van Ryn.

Meanwhile, the Leafs have received their first offer for an excess defenceman who Burke is hoping to parlay into a top-six forward, perhaps for a right-shooting centre. 

The Leafs may not be done with free agency either but the available players, Brad May, Saku Koivu, Brenden Morrison, Maxim Afinogenov and Alex Tanguay  are a decidedly mixed lot.

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