Many Leaf fans expressed, if not quite joy, a sense of palpable relief upon the news on Saturday, that the much-maligned (and pending UFA) Jonas Gustavsson had been traded away to the Winnipeg Jets. The return was a 7th round draft choice and for some Leaf supporters that was “better than nothing”. And that it was, I guess.
While no one with a rooting interest in the Leafs expected (or likely wanted, in truth) Gus to return for a fourth season in blue and white, the reality of the deal hit me in a way that made me reflect on what really has been going on here.
My thought is not that, at this point, I expected the Leafs to do better than a 7th round pick for a goalie, who, at 27, is still unproven in North America. That ship had sailed, no question.
But here’s my concern: we’re missing the real story here, which is not, “Hey, we got rid of Gustavsson and actually got a draft pick back…”. No, for me, the real story is that, a few years after Burke made a big deal about acquiring a guy who was supposed to be a bona fide NHL goalie—maybe even a star—"The Monster" had, essentially, zero value in the marketplace. He had none at the trade deadline, and basically none now.
Yes, part of it is that he is a pending UFA, of course. But somehow we managed to take a goalie who was prized and much sought-after three short years ago, who was trumpeted as another sign of Burke’s player-acquisition moxie, who was good enough that he earned a legit nickname because he was so promising in the Swedish Elite League…and we turned him into a goalie with absolutely no value.
How does this happen?
Yes, we can point to Gus’ heart issues, but c’mon, do we really believe that is the whole picture here? It isn’t. We took a good, young, daring, athletic goalie and tried to make him something he isn’t. Over time, his confidence waned. He clearly had lost the faith of his coaches, his teammates—and management. (Check out any number of posts on this site, we’ve talked about it for a long time…) This past season, even when Burke was claiming “Gustavsson saved our season” or words to that effect, everyone knew it was just Burke talking again. It did nothing to restore Gus’ lost place in people’s minds. He soon was back on the bench.
That ship, too, had sailed.
There are many sub-issues here. Goaltending management under Ron Wilson was, well, scatter-shot and largely unhelpful to all the goalies who played for him during his four seasons behind the Leaf bench. But it’s the cumulative impact on a player who should have at the very least been a trade-worthy asset that troubles me. Even if the brass now truly believes that Reimer and Scrivens—or some-yet-to-be-acquired netminder—are the guys for the future, here's what has happened: we took a player that should have been able to net us a couple of say, second-round draft choices or a maybe even a first-round choice if we had developed him properly and yet the best we could do was a death-bed deal for a draft choice we will likely never hear about again.
Again, my point is not that Gustavsson is worth a lot now, but what he should have been worth if the Leafs had developed him effectively. (We don’t know if Lindback, for example, will ever be a true number-one goalie, but he sure provided Nashville with some future assets…they played it perfectly.)
Similarly, what were (now past tense...) we doing with Luke Schenn? First, we brought him up when it simply wasn’t necessary. He was too young and should have been playing junior hockey. Oh, he was impressive as an 18 year-old, but many are—at first. They are filled with a rambunctious enthusiasm that coaches love. Mistakes are glossed over because the youngsters are all blood, guts and potential.
But four years later, the focus was on the mistakes he was still making. How did we—and more importantly, Leaf management and GM’s around the league—feel about Schenn’s game now? He was worth a good young forward from the Flyers, yes. But would we have also set his game—and long-term development— even further back, had he stayed in Toronto?
And then there’s young Kadri. (How long can I keep writing that?) I have zero problem with him playing with the Marlies. Those who visit here regularly know that I called for that last season, in 2010-’11. What I mostly wanted was for the organization not to call him up one day as a potential offensive savior, put him on the first line and power-play unit, then mess with him as he suddenly found himself on the third line, and then back with the Marlies.
The yo-yo has continued since he was drafted. Is he, too, worth what he should be, now?
I just find this all sobering when we start to get excited about all the “great young prospects” the Leafs have, and how deep we believe we are now on the blueline. Gardiner has elite talent, yes, but let’s face it, he thrived this past season because he was essentially allowed to just play. He was a rookie who shocked everyone with his calm and confidence. And that was great. However, he got by on his natural skill set—and that may well take him a long way in the league. But I’ll want to see how he develops under the tutelage he will receive as a Maple Leaf.
If we’re honest, in terms of the much-ballyhooed “development” the Leafs say they believe in, we thoroughly messed up Gustavsson. When you grind a player's confidence into the ground, what is he worth? He was only 24 when he signed here, and should be entering his prime years as a goalie in the years ahead. He leaves as a goalie who, as I’ve said here for almost two years, needs a fresh start somewhere else, anywhere else. Will it be Winnipeg? Maybe. But he needs to be somewhere where the coaches will just let him play, use his skills and not mess with him—and where management truly believes in him, not just with empty words.
He remains an example of why my faith in this “patient re-build” process leaves me uncertain. I’m not sure our development track record is good enough to have strong faith.