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Jonas Gustavsson: why we have to be patient with a goalie

Not all goalies set the NHL on fire in their first-year.

In fact, many who do start well later fall back and never recapture their early promise. Names like Mike Moffatt of the Bruins, Jim Carey of the Capitals, and to a lesser degree Don Beaupre (who, in truth, had a fairly lengthy and solid career) come to mind as young goalies who came in and seemed like can’t miss prospects after a great first season. Yet they never fully found their way going forward.

Carey Price looked like he couldn’t be beaten in his rookie year as a 20 year-old a couple of seasons ago. By the end of last season, some thought he was a flash-in-the-pan. At the moment, he’s playing very well again, and the reality is he will likely be a solid performer over time for Montreal.

He’s been through all this analysis, and he’s all of 22.

Patience is key.

I mention this as Toronto’s Jonas Gustavsson, albeit not exactly a kid at 25 (and we’re all hoping the health issue that cropped up last night in Montreal is not serious) has struggled at times after some big games earlier this season. Gustavsson looks like the real deal, and he will have to make adjustments as all young goalies have to make. It’s taken Marc-Andre Fleury—a high first-round draft choice—five years in the league to firmly establish himself as a go-to guy, and others have needed much longer.

Steve Mason, 21, is going through the same thing now in Columbus as Price did last season. A world-beater a year ago, off his game maybe a bit this year so far, as everyone over-analyzes why.

A few years ago, honestly, who thought Tim Thomas (a modern-day Johnny Bower) would be a game-changer for the Bruins? He had bounced around, and seemed to have no discernable style. To the casual observer, he seemed to be throwing himself all over the place. However, he stopped pucks, and has earned a lot of playing time in recent years for a good Bruins team. Dwayne Roloson has had eight strong years, but was a largely a back-up and minor-league player prior to that. He’s now 40. It can take time.

An older name that comes to mind in this regard is former Islanders goalie Billy Smith. I remember watching a Leaf game in the 1971-’72 season, when the Leafs were on the west coast. It was a Saturday night, I believe, and the Leafs were playing the Kings. For some reason (the CBC didn’t do this much in those days, and I think it was a CBC broadcast) Hockey Night in Canada showed the Montreal game at the Forum, then a second game featuring the Leafs and the Kings. (Of course, the network televises at least two games every Saturday now.)

I remember watching a goalie I’d never heard of before, someone named Bill Smith, play that night. His name sounded like the guy next door.

The Leafs won easily, which was unusual because Toronto rarely played well in those days on the west coast. But they won that night, and I remember thinking, “I don’t know who this guy is, but he can’t play goal…”

How wrong I was.

What I wasn’t considering was that Smith was maybe 22 at the time, and was playing in one of his first NHL games.

He eventually went to the expansion Islanders, and battled with Chico Resch for the top job there off and on for years.

A side note: Here’s something I didn’t remember: when the Leafs played the Islanders in that memorable 7-game series in 1978, Resch was pulled in the first period by Islander coach Al Arbour. The Leafs had gotten off to a 4 goal lead.

In came Billy Smith. Except in those days, he wasn’t yet, as he later became known, “Battling Billy Smith”. I recently saw the broadcast of that game on Leafs TV, and Bill Hewitt and Brian McFarlane both referred to him as “Bill Smith”. He had not played until that 6th game. Resch was back in for game 7, and gave up Lanny McDonald’s overtime marker as the Leafs won the series in an upset.

But over the next couple of years, Smith continued to earn his time, and became the undisputed number one guy. He was indeed “Billy” Smith, the backbone of a tough, talented Islander team that captured 4 Cups in a row, before finally falling to the emerging Oilers in 1984.

Smith became a deserving Hall-of-Fame goalie, a guy I hated but wished Toronto had on our side.

I was wrong about him back in 1972.

So, with that and many other examples in mind, the watchword is: patience. Gustavsson (assuming his health is OK) will likely be just fine.

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