Not infrequently over the past couple of years in this space, I have mentioned the possibility that it may be better—for everyone concerned—if Jonas Gustavsson was to find a new home somewhere else. We know that he will be a free-agent this summer and the decision now rests with him—and any new team that may want him.
It’s not that I don’t like Gus, either as a goalie or a representative of the Leafs. Not at all. I feel he has overcome a lot and has represented the Leafs very well. As a goalie, I like his athleticism, as I have often noted here. I think the young man is a determined and competitive guy. At times he has been our best goalie (out of an admittedly fairly mediocre lot) over the past three seasons.
It’s just that, for all the happy talk that emanates from the Air Canada Center about Allaire's positive influence and how much the team has supported Gustavsson, I just believe the opposite is true. I don’t want to go over every single post I’ve written on this subject, but it remains clear to me that the organization stopped really believing in Gus long ago. And while “goaltending management” and playing time was certainly part of a larger problem, it wasn’t just Ron Wilson.
While a goalie needs coaching, he also, in my mind, needs to be allowed to relax sometimes and just play the game. It can’t be a position, surely, where you spend all your time thinking and worrying about "positioning" or mistakes. (Mistakes will find you soon enough.) Of course mechanics are important, but my intuition suggests, after decades of watching so many goalies go through serenely spectacular periods and others where a beach ball looks too small to stop, that even they sometimes don’t know why they get into a "zone" and stop everything that they can see—or conversely, why they suddenly lose their focus, their angles—and their confidence—all at once, and sometimes find it very difficult to get it back.
Stuff happens. Sure, you have to analyze your mechanics sometimes when things go off the rails, but a guy like Gustavsson may be best served if, mostly, the team just lets him play, with some basic parameters as a guide. He was an elite goaltender in Sweden before coming to North America. My guess is his mechanics were not micro-managed there day in and day out.
Now, that’s as dangerously close as I will ever try to come to sounding like I know what I’m talking about when it comes to goalies. But what I do know is this: confidence matters. If you don’t have it, and your teammates and the organization you play for don’t/doesn’t have it in you, then you are best advised to find another place to play. And that’s still where I think we are with The Monster. My sense is that he has played well enough, often enough, here in Toronto that he’ll get a contract somewhere in the NHL in 2012-’13. Maybe he’ll be an eternal back-up. Maybe he’ll be a starter. Heck, some day he may even be a star. It’s taken Kari Lehtonen years to become a near-stud goalie—albeit via a different trajectory and career path.
But I’m hoping for the best for Gus, whether he somehow re-signs here against all odds, or plays elsewhere. I just don’t believe Carlyle’s arrival (as much as Gustavsson was misused at times under Wilson) would make much difference at this point. Gustavsson and his agent need to find the best home for him, and I’m guessing it’s not here.
This all brings me to some thoughts on the current whipping boy of the Leaf defense, young Luke Schenn.
The very talented Al Iafrate had the job in the mid and later 1980s, though in that largely sorry decade for the Leafs he wasn’t alone. In the ‘90s, Larry Murphy had some, let’s call them “eventful” years here. Hell, he was a Hall-of-Famer. (At least he was voted in. I didn' honestly see him as a Hall-of-Fame player, but he was awfully good...) Leaf fans didn’t seem to like him much, regardless. Thus the booing. He was certainly a better (and more relaxed?) player before and after his time in Toronto.
Aki Berg, another guy with skill, warmed the hearts of those who needed a trigger point to “boo” out their Leaf occasional frustrations in the early part of the 2000s. In more recent times, Mike Komisarek- a hard-working Leaf if there ever was one and a great team guy by all accounts- has taken on his share of fan dissatisfaction, replacing Brett Lebda (who, in fairness, won a Cup in Detroit and played some significant minutes there. But he wasn't the first guy who didn't play to his potential in this market, eh?).
And now, we’re picking on one of the youngest guys we have, Luke Schenn. But, because he is already finishing his fourth year in the NHL (remind me again why we continue to force-feed guys into the line-up at the age of 18 or 19, even if they look ready…did no one at MLSE ever hear of Benning, Boimstruck and McGill, just to name a few examples?) at the tender age of 22—and since was a very high draft pick—we expected more, I guess. Seemingly a lot more.
I have no—and I mean zero—idea if Carlyle likes Luke Schenn as a player. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. Haven’t got a clue. We know that Schenn’s minutes under Wilson had dropped quite often this season. This was after a nice teenaged rookie campaign, a fall-back sophomore year, a supposed “rebound” last season and an uneven fourth season this year.
We know he led the team in hits this season, is pretty good at blocking shots and can hammer guys with good old-fashioned, bone-jarring hits. We also know that he is not exactly Paul Coffey on skates, and can miss assignments in front of the net, make poor decisions and give the puck away on occasion—pretty much like all young defenseman.
You’ve heard me say here often: beware of giving away young defensemen with potential. It’s not that the world isn’t populated with young guys with “potential”; it’s just that finding the ones who are defensemen and who will actually develop into something more than a roster-filler are pretty darn hard to find.
So when you have a Keith Aulie, say, I’m not disposed to trade him (as the Leafs did at the deadline this year), even for a forward with “potential" . And when you have a Luke Schenn, as limited as he may appear at times and as arrested as his development seems to be currently, well, I just wonder about the wisdom of peddling a player who the brass thought enough of less than twelve months ago to sign him to a nice multi-year contract.
As I’ve said here before, I’m not suggesting that Schenn will be another Scott Stevens or Rod Langway. But he doesn’t have to be Stevens to be helpful and play an important role here. But as with Gustavsson, do some of you, like me, wonder a bit if, in everybody’s best interest, Schenn may in fact be one of those individuals who might thrive and prosper in a different market, in a new environment—without having to endure the daily rigors of post-practice and game debates about his abilities?
I think there is a player here, and I’d like to see that player develop in Toronto. But at the same time, will he develop better, will his career arc be smoother—if he were to play somewhere else?
I wonder if the time is coming (like with Travis Snyder of the the Blue Jays who was sent to the minors yet again this spring), where, if you're not going to fully utilize him with confidence here, you move him while there is still perceived market value there. Another middlish, up and down, under-the-daily-microscope season from Schenn and, well, where will his confidence be—and what will his market value be, at that point?
I don’t pretend to know. But I’m guessing the people who run the Leafs are going through these very deliberations right now as they look to the future—one with Schenn, and one without.