This of course is especially so when it comes to the Maple Leafs. Not to unfairly impugn all Leaf fans (none of us is close to perfect), but so many are engaged in “group think” at times that it becomes easy to become dismissive of a player because of our perceptions of their on-ice performance. Before long, it becomes a “movement”, and Leaf fans far and wide buy into the presumption of “lousiness” and there is virtually no way for that player to redeem himself in the eyes of those fans.
Larry Murphy was a pretty good defenseman, eh, (elected ultimately to the Hall-of-Fame) but he was chastised regularly here. And it wasn’t just a few isolated boo-birds in the cheap seats at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was more widespread than that. (A few boos would have been fine.) Bryan McCabe was actually voted an end-of-season All-Star one year during his time under Pat Quinn with the Leafs and selected for Canada’s World Cup Team in 2004 (acquiring McCabe, now that was a great trade) but was eventually run out of town on a rail, after years of listening to all the reasons why he wasn’t good enough, though he was an indispensable part of two “final four” teams.
Brett Ledba (who played serious minutes in Detroit while helping the Red Wings win a Cup) is still discussed unfavourably in these parts, though I’m not sure what indiscretion caused him to be the vehicle for so much discontent. Luke Schenn, all of 23 now, saw the back of our hand after four seasons. Many speak of him as though he plays the game with two left feet, yet for all his supposed flaws he is a plus 5 with the Flyers while playing more than 20 minutes a night—and that’s a team that hasn’t hit its stride yet. Heck Cody Franson of our suddenly surging Leafs was on the same “track” of fan discontent until his recent play. But let’s not kids ourselves, that’s where that 'fan bus' was going for Franson, too.
When it comes to goaltenders, I’m not sure we take a back seat to Vancouver when it comes to eating them up and spitting them out. Forget our history, we all know the names in recent years that weren’t good enough for us: Raycroft, Giguere, and Toskala come to mind without batting an eye.
When it comes to Jonas Gustavsson, the man with the great nickname (“The Monster”), we proved yet again how quickly our love can turn to venom. Here is a young man who freely chose to come to Toronto (yes, for the money, no doubt—isn’t that why virtually all athletes go anywhere these days?), but also lured by the opportunity that seemed to be in front of him to get immediate playing time in the best league in the world, after standing his own Swedish Elite League somewhat on its head in his time there.
We were excited that this big, athletic goalie came here, because we needed goaltending badly and our then GM supposedly out-foxed Gustavsson’s other (and there were quite a few, by all accounts) suitors to get the big Swede’s name on the dotted line.
In any event, we all know that Gustavsson’s time here was, at best, star-crossed. There was the early heart ailment, which would be a setback for anyone, no matter how ‘routine’ it was made to sound. There were some nice games and some less solid outings. Gus was even given credit just a year ago (before the wheels fell off for the entire team) by our former GM for “saving our bacon” and keeping the team in the playoff hunt during Reimer’s prolonged absence.
Yet, Gustavsson was found wanting by so many fans, who perhaps thought we were getting polished, modern-day versions Glenn Hall, Bernie Parent or Ken Dryden from the get-go.
That some combination of health issues, injuries, his own frailties, Francois Allaire, meddling assistant coaches and a lack of confidence shown by our then Head coach made him essentially valueless by the end of his “run” here in Toronto was, in hockey terms, rather sad. In terms of how to “develop players” with potential—so they at least become assets with value, it was an unforgiveable organization disaster, in my view. It wasn't all on Gustavsson. No way.
The Leafs did a horrible job of developing and building up a skilled asset—a goalie with size, athleticism and agility, not to mention a previously top-notch reputation. If you listen to what those who saw him in Sweden have said, we turned him into something they could not even recognize: a jumble of nerves, a goalie with next to no confidence—a guy caught between his own instincts and some notion of “how” an Allaire goaltender should play.
From a Leaf standpoint, forget that they lost what might have been a good goaltender. They lost any value that should have been built up in Gustavsson.
For the goalie himself, it was even worse—he seemingly no future at the NHL level.
So I sense I was one of the few (I’m not alone, I realize, but we’re in a distinct minority, I sense) who, when we all saw this past summer that Gustavsson signed on as a UFA with the Red Wings, was happy for him. To me, Gustavsson had always presented as a pretty shy guy, someone who was doing his best and hit a few brick walls—not all of his own doing—here in Toronto. I had always hoped, as I often wrote during his time with the Leafs, that he would just be allowed to play the way he wanted to play, without so much input from others. It seemed that he stopped playing the position naturally. He never really got that chance, never really had the opportunity to play a run of 10 or 12 games in a row where he knew, no matter what, he would be back in there the next night. That’s often how goalies can build their confidence. It’s hard to do when you are afraid that every shot you let in that’s a “bad goal” may see you back on the bench for a lengthy period of time.
When he signed in Detroit, there was the expected snickering that he would be protected because Detroit has a better system, as in, “any goalie can play well there”. Poor guy can’t win. (Perhaps he should have signed with another team like the Leafs have been in recent years, with not much of a focus on checking or defense, where goalies were the easiest targets when they lost.)
So how have things gone for our man Gus in Motown? Well, nothing to write home about so far. We all know the lockout has created a crazy, shortened and very rushed season. All kinds of NHL’ers are walking wounded with an assortment of ailments. We’ll never be able to prove that the lack of a proper training camp and exhibition season is the cause, but you have to believe that is a huge issue for many players. For Gustavsson, groin issues, always the bane of a goalie’s perilous existence, have been a persistent problem already this season.
He did get into a couple of games in relief, but he did not get a start, I don’t believe, until this past Thursday night on the road in San Jose. Interestingly, with a couple of minor-leaguers nipping at his heels for playing time and knowing that a bad outing might be his real ‘shot’ last in Detroit, he led the Wings to a 2-1victory. He stopped 25 of 26 shots and all three shootout attempts. (I’m sure his critics will pull out charts saying the shots were from fourth-liners, taken from parts of the ice where it’s easy to stop shots, etc.. Whatever. His teammates were thrilled, and so was his coach, so that’s rather more telling to me than a shooting chart or cynical 'group think' assessments…)
I’m hardly going to pronounce Gustavsson “back” or suggest he will now ride the crest of a wave. All kinds of goaltenders who I’ve never heard of before (or since) have had one-off great games at the NHL level, or a string of nice games, before falling back into what is more their individual “norm”. I have no clue what Gustavsson will do next.
I’m just happy to see a guy who did nothing but his best for the Leaf organization—and who I feel was unduly harangued here—get another opportunity at the NHL level. He may get hurt again tomorrow, or not win another game this season.
But regardless, for one night, at least he showed he is indeed a capable NHL goaltender. And maybe if the Maple Leaf organization—and we fans—had had more realistic expectations when he first signed here, and provided him with the kind of support that players sometimes need to feel welcomed and appreciated (and developed), the story might have been different here in Toronto.
Few others may care, but I wish him well.