In some ways, being a goaltender is like being the leader of a political party. There are limited opportunities at the highest level, and many candidates vying for them. There are star candidates and unknowns, with the latter succeeding almost as often as the former. Both goalies and political leaders often find themselves blamed with or credited for the accomplishments of the people around them.
There is at least one more similarity: once the candidate has secured a job for a contending entity, there is not much patience for failure. When that patience runs out, the candidate is out of a job.
Jonas Gustavsson has tested the patience of the Toronto Maple Leafs and their backers.
Gustavsson doesn’t slot easily into either the category of “unknown” or “star candidate.” He was never drafted; first eligible in 2003, Gustavsson spent his draft year struggling in the Swedish U-20 league, posting a miserable 0.873 SV% in 21 games. Gustavsson was a late bloomer – his numbers remained bad for years, but slowly got better as the 2000’s carried on. In 2007-08, he established himself as a legitimate starter in the Elitserien, one of the best leagues in the world. In 2008-09, he won the league’s MVP award and was suddenly a household name as NHL teams rushed to get him inked to a contract.
The Maple Leafs, as they so often do with top undrafted free agents, managed to convince Gustavsson to sign with them rather than those other clubs. “The Monster” entered 2009-10 as the backup to incumbent starter Vesa Toskala, with some hinting that he might claim the starting job, particularly given Toskala’s own struggles with both injury and performance.
As it happened, Gustavsson did play the bulk of the Leafs’ games, but more by default than thanks to strong play. Toskala imploded, and Gustavsson’s 0.902 SV% made him the Leafs’ best option until a trade brought in Jean-Sebastien Giguere from Anaheim. Giguere was tagged as the starter entering 2010-11, but posted just a 0.900 SV% and left another opening. It was an opening Gustavsson proved incapable of seizing – over the games he did play, his save percentage was worse than Giguere’s. Instead, it was James Reimer who earned ice-time, and the starting gig.
Now, Reimer’s out, though likely not for long. He won’t play tonight’s game – that honour will go to Gustavsson – but prior to today it was expected that he would. This gives Gustavsson another chance to show his ability, something he has been unable to do over parts of three games this season. Gustavsson has allowed 13 goals on 91 shots in contests against Bruins, Canadiens and Flyers, and has an 0.857 SV% entering the contest.
As we’ve seen, though, this isn’t just a matter of a good goalie getting off to a poor start. This is a situation where a goalie has posted sub-average NHL numbers for two seasons, and now looks utterly incapable.
Further, the Leafs are blessed with depth at the position. Ben Scrivens, currently filling the backup role for Gustavsson, is coming off a brilliant season that saw him work his way up from the ECHL and perform superbly in the AHL. He’s won four of five minor league starts this season. Also in the system is Jussi Rynnas, who played ably for the Marlies last year and who should be able to handle the bulk of the minor-league work with very little assistance.
How long does Gustavsson have? I’d say that he needs to play very well against New York.
Update: Minutes after posting this, Sportsnet’s John Shannon tweeted that the Leafs had placed James Reimer on injured reservewith "concussion like symptoms."