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The Gustavsson conundrum: No Wally Pipp here?

 A number of game notes from Monday night:
  • Leaf fans must be feeling that, now that Bozak knocked one home, there is more to come from the young center.  I was thinking when he made a nice spin and shoot move a few minutes beforehand, that if he can just get one, more will come.  Not necessarily a ton, but enough to show he has the skill and finish we saw last season.
  • Kadri, a natural center, sees the ice very well and he showed that again in setting up Bozak’s marker.  It was similar to Kadri’s cross-ice feed for Vertseeg’s one-timer against the Devils last week.
  • The goal for that line was a nice—and quick—make-up for allowing Richards to roam free on his goal.
  • It’s always easy to comment that a guy is playing well after he scores two goals, but Kulemin does seem to be giving a bit more over the last while, more like he showed toward the end of last season.  This should be a break-out year for the third-line winger.  I wrote at the end of last season that he was capable of doubling his point output. That’s not likely going to happen this season, but I believe it will happen soon.
  • I’m among those, as I’ve posted before, that wants to see Gunnarsson in the line-up.  He will make mistakes, but he tends to make relatively few, especially for a young defenseman.  Wilson will have a line-up decision when Phaneuf is ready, because Aulie has looked awfully calm out there, too.  Does Gunnarsson go upstairs?
  • Grabovski now has16 points in 20 games.  I didn’t see that coming.  Will it last?
  • MacArthur is another surprise, for me.  18 points in 20 games and it has been steady offensive production, which is important.
  • Brent played well over 19 minutes (huge for a third-line center) and took big face-offs, including at the end of the game.  He is a guy that Wilson turns to.
  • Kessel had one of his less energetic nights, so Wilson played him less.
  • Schenn and Beauchemin continue to log big minutes on the back end.

As I mentioned in a column last week, I found it odd that Ron Wilson would on the one hand proclaim there was going to be no goaltending controversy in Toronto and on the other, suggest that maybe Gustavsson might just play himself into that position with Giguere out.

As Wilson said, “who knows”?

Without going over the same ground about why I’m not a fan of a goalie (in this case Giguere, who was clearly the “number-one”) possibly losing that status because he is injured, the Leaf brass does face a fluid situation here.

If Gustavsson plays very well, as he has in his first three games as the official starter (including the win Monday night against Dallas) since Giguere went down, does Wilson suddenly make “The Monster” the guy who plays two out of every three games, or three out of four? 

I’m sure everyone would make nice, and say it’s all about the team, but there are some considerations here.  One is perhaps most obvious:  how many goalies can we name that played well for a while, and looked like they were sure-fire number-one goaltenders, then fell back into ordinary play? The list is too long to work through. So while Gustavsson is certainly athletic and seems to have the tools to be very good, it’s not like he has a lot of NHL time behind him already.

Too, Giguere, if I’m not mistaken, is in the last year of his contract.  If he leaves at the end of the season, the Leafs garner a nice chunk of space under the cap and could promote a very inexpensive young back-up for Gustavsson next season.  (They have plenty of young goalies in the system who would be thrilled to play for the league minimum, I would think.)

But maybe most importantly, Giguere has been the guy who, since he joined the team part-way through last season, has sort of held things together during some pretty unsettling times.  His save percentage is not sterling stuff, if you focus on stats, but he has played some good hockey.  And, not unimportantly, he seems to bring the kind of quiet, mature presence that only a seasoned veteran with a history of success can bring to a team that has three young defensemen in the line-up every night, and not a forward over the age of 30.

So I was not surprised to hear Giggy suggesting he may be able to return “early” from his groin problem. Why?  The guy is a competitor, and knows his understudy might just be capable of taking his job.  To earn one last big free-agent contract, he needs to play a lot, and at an elite level, to attain that.

The risk of losing your job is something many athletes face.  It brings to mind when my dad, fifty years ago, first told me the “Wally Pipp” story.  Dad, in addition to being a deeply devoted Montreal Canadiens supporter, was a huge New York Yankees baseball fan.  (He saw Babe Ruth play many times.)  The short version of the story is that Pipp, a veteran first baseman with the then powerful New York Yankees in the 1920s, was under the weather (or possibly hung over after a night out on the town—it was an afternoon game, as they all were in those days) before a game.  He asked his manager, Miller Huggins, if I remember the name correctly, for a day off.

Huggins inserted a kid by the name of Lou Gehrig into the line up that day instead of Pipp.  Gehrig played so well, he started again the next day, and went on to play more than 2000 games in a row for the Yankees, setting a record that stood until Cal Ripken surpassed it just a few years ago.

Pipp never played regularly for the Yankees again.

I don’t see that happening here.  In fact, it won’t.  But while you always play to win at the NHL level, and that means playing whoever is playing well at the time, it will be interesting to see not only how Gustavsson continues to play, but how they handle a potentially sensitive situation upon Giguere’s return.


  1. It shouldn't be a sensitive situation at all. Giguere's contract is up at the end of the year. The Leafs owe him nothing. If his save percentage was higher than Gustavsson's, he'd play. It's not. He hasn't been very effective. Gustavsson has. This team should be desperate to make the playoffs this season, to make sure that #1 pick for Boston isn't very high. They have to put their best lineup out there every night, and that means Monster has to be between the pipes. I trust Ron Wilson will make the right decision.

  2. I have to think his job is gone and he can only earn it back by outplaying Gustavsson big time, given that the Monster slips - which I hope doesn't happen.

    Totally agree with Navin above, Wilson has to ice the best lineup game in and game out. Gustavsson is the better goalie right now and I don't think anyone can argue against that. Also, like Navin mentioned, the Leafs owe Giguere squat. Once his six million is off the books, use it to buy some offense and let a prospect like Reimer or Rynnas see some NHL practice and backup duties next season. At least that should be the goal for management.

  3. Though, one place where I'm at odds with Navin: I'd probably put "hope" into that last sentence instead of "trust"

    I'm not sure about Wilson, to be honest. I really hope he doesn't eff this up when Jiggy returns.

  4. The Leafs had an iron man like Gehrig. Then they traded him!

    Gary Unger!