Jonas Gustavsson has known hard times and they are a valuable asset as he negotiates his first NHL season.
The rookie goalie has endured two heart-related layoffs and another eight games lost to a groin injury.
He has bobbed through highs and lows. His goals against average (2.94) and save percentage (.902) are just a hair above the shameful. He has been part of a tandem that allowed the first goal in 43 of the Leafs 53 games.
Gustavsson gets the start as the Maple Leafs face the Los Angeles Kings at Air Canada Centre, Tuesday night. The two teams are careening in different directions. The Kings have won four of five. The Leafs have lost four of five.
The Leafs goaltending tandem of Gustavsson and Vesa Toskala is ranked 30th in the 30-team league but it would be hard to argue that the goaltending has been demonstrably worse than the play of the forwards and defence.
Which brings us back to Gustavsson who remembers struggling mightily in his first year with Farjestads of the Swedish Elite League.
“That first year wasn’t that good. I was injured and my play was sometimes good, sometimes not. The next year, everything had changed. I think as a player I am a late bloomer and I know what it takes to get through hard times.”
The popular thinking is that Gustavsson has the 28 games remaining on the schedule to prove himself. Certainly he is getting the opportunity. Gustavsson has played three of the last four and tonight he will have played six more games than Vesa Toskala for whom he was supposed to apprentice.
Gustavsson said the audition never ends.
“When I signed here, I wasn’t looking for a one-year situation. I want to show them I can be a goalie they can count on. I wanted a piece of a team that has a future. We have some very good young talent on this team and in the minors.”
Despite the poor numbers, the Leafs seem to be ready to make Gustavsson the full time tender next season. Toskala is on the final year of his contract and certainly has not outperformed the rookie. Gustavsson has shown enough to encourage coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke that he can play regularly in the NHL.
Just 29 games into his NHL career, Gustavsson is still relearning the game. The transition from the European sized rink can wreck a goalie’s internal radar. Shots come from where they usually don’t. Players scramble to block shots and impair the goalie’s vision at odd times. The Leafs defensive play is often as porous as a bathtub mat and visitors Gustavsson receives in his crease are often wearing different sweaters than he is.
“I have been playing pretty much the same way as I had in the past,” he said. “What has changed are the angles and that’s what I’ve been working with (Leafs goaltending consultant) Francois Allaire on. Right now it feels good. It feels like I am going in the right direction.”