No, you didn’t step into a time machine. It isn’t 2009, and I don’t blame you for being ready to fire your meanest scoffs, side eyes, shade and screams in my direction. But it’s a bye week; lets at least talk this one out a little bit.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) January 9, 2017
Gustavsson’s name is very familiar to the most storm-weathered of Leafs fans. The 32-year old native of Danderyd, Sweden was once touted to be the “best goaltender not playing in the National Hockey League”, thanks to an unbelievable season with Farjestads BK of Sweden’s Elitserien (now SHL). In 2008/09, Gustavsson had an obscene 0.932 save percentage over 42 regular season games, only to top it with a 0.961 stretch in thirteen playoff games. He then headed to the World Championships and was a 0.914 for Sweden, who used him as their starting goaltender.
After a months-long courting process, he chose the Maple Leafs as the team he wanted to begin his NHL journey with. Right away, it looked like this was going to be a match made in heaven:
Unfortunately, the stellar start to his preseason didn’t quite carry over into the games that mattered. While he did steal the starting job from Vesa Toskala as he said he would, it was mostly because Toskala was a colossal tire fire that year. Gustavsson’s 0.902 over 42 games was still seen as a decent starting point for a rookie, but he ultimately lost the stop to Jean-Sebastien Giguere after a blockbuster trade by Brian Burke in the winter.
Gustavsson stuck out two more years with the Leafs, playing 23 games in a 2011 year dragged down by heart problems and 42 games in 2011/12 after James Reimer suffered an early-season concussion. Since then, he’s played with Detroit, Boston, and Edmonton; this year, he’s in the midst of his worst season of his career, putting up a 0.878 save percentage over seven games.
So the problem here, quite frankly, is that he doesn’t stop the puck enough, and that he’s already proven that in a Leafs uniform. So why even give this time, you might ask?
Well, there’s not many other options. It doesn’t look like Kari Ramo is going to work out, and Jhonas Enroth is struggling to find consistency on the Marlies. Toronto could look to Garret Sparks or Antoine Bibeau, but Mike Babcock’s reluctance to start Bibeau in a back to back situation this weekend could imply that, despite two good performances thus far, they’re not totally sold on him as a backup yet.
Not to mention, Gustavsson, in theory, is the prototypical Babcock backup. He has the size, at 6’4, 201 lbs. He plays an aggressive style, which Babcock likes. He even spent time playing under Babs in Detroit, getting 41 of his 179 NHL appearances in while there. Coincidentally, that’s where he played some of his better NHL hockey; he was a 0.907 in 27 appearances in 2014, and a 0.911 in 7 appearances in 2015. Detroit moved on from him after the latter season, but Babcock had moved on from the Wings at the same time, so who knows if he had influence there.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether it’s believed that Gustavsson’s issues this season are fixable, and if being a slightly below league average goaltender is enough of a gain given the current circumstances. I don’t think this is the best decision the team could make in goal by any means, and I ultimately believe that Gustavsson will clear and make his way to Bakersfield, but I also wouldn’t really be surprised by anything at this point.