Shortly after signing a one-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer, Swedish goaltender Jonas Gustavsson was quoted in the Toronto Sun as saying he chose to sign with the team because "In Toronto, everybody talks about hockey. I like to be in the heat."
Well, the spotlight couldn’t have been stronger for the Maple Leafs than this past month. And during this time, two early-season injuries placed Gustavsson on the IR — the first a heart ailment and the second a groin injury.
The Maple Leafs had also lost both their starting netminder Vesa Toskala and Gustavsson to injuries and were forced to start their third string goaltender Joey MacDonald in three straight games. Toronto was off to its worst start in franchise history with a record of 0-7-1 and were still searching for their first win. The team ranked 29th in the league in goal scoring and last in the NHL in goals against. And the Leafs were headed on the road through GM Brian Burke’s old stomping grounds — the Vancouver team he lifted from mediocrity to Anaheim, the team he built into a Stanley Cup champion.
It was in this atmosphere that Gustavsson would make his return from injury, having played in a game and a half, but still looking for his first NHL win. The heat was on in Anaheim.
"The Monster" would prove just how much he excels when playing under pressure as he made a few key saves early in the game, including a poke check on a speeding Teemu Selanne and another save on Ducks winger Erik Christensen, to keep the Leafs in the game and help the Maple Leafs earn their first win of the season.
"He made a couple of big stops, that one stop he made on Corey Perry was a big-time stop. He gave them a chance," assessed Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle after the game.
"They were huge saves," said Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, "and the one on Christensen I thought ‘oh wow,’ 1-0, but he found a way to make a save."
"Everybody is excited and we were confident when we saw him make a big save," said Toronto defenseman Francois Beauchemin. "That gives us a little boost up front to make better plays."
"For the team, it was big to get that first win," said Gustavsson. "Now everybody can stop talking about it and move on and try to get the next one. For myself, of course it was big step for me to get my first NHL win. That’s pretty big for me and I’m really happy about it."
The win not only injected confidence back into the Maple Leafs, it also gave the hockey world a glimpse of what the future holds in net for Toronto with Gustavsson.
"There were a whole bunch of teams after him," said Burke, the GM who managed to woo the top-ranked European goaltender. "It was quite a battle to get him. We think he has a chance to be a real good goaltender in the league and we wanted to have some pressure on the job behind Vesa [Toskala]. Obviously, it hasn’t worked so far because Jonas has been injured twice. He had a heart ailment and then a groin injury. If we get them both back healthy we hope to have good goaltending, but we haven’t so far."
The injury problems for Gustavsson appear to be behind him. He credits the Leafs organization for taking their time in rehabilitating him and now both he and Burke are hoping he can quickly regain the form he showed in his last season in Sweden.
"He absolutely dominated in the Swedish Elite League which is a great league," said Burke. "He absolutely tore it up. You look at his statistics and you blink because you think ‘I must be reading that wrong.’ He absolutely destroyed that league so to us, that’s a pretty good league and he should be able to play here."
And Burke isn’t exaggerating about those numbers. The 6’3, 192 lb netminder was the top goaltender in the SEL in 2008-09 season with a 1.96 goals against average and a .932 save percentage through the regular season and an amazing 1.03 goals against average and a .961 save percentage in the playoffs.
With such numbers, it’s no surprise that the Monster was one of the most heavily recruited free agents this past offseason or that Toronto has such high hopes for the goaltender.
"He’s what we call a B-plus goaltender and not from a grade standpoint but he’s a butterfly plus," Burke said. "[He] plays the butterfly but he’s very athletic, very quick hands and feet so he can make athletic plays as well. We have high hopes for him — for him to step in and play right away in the NHL is gonna be a big step, but we think he’s ready."
And while other players have struggled in their transition from the European Leagues to the NHL, Gustavsson certainly looks ready.
"In the limited time he’s been in the net he’s been phenomenal," enthused Toronto head coach Ron Wilson, "and hopefully he can keep it going. It does give your team confidence."
So far in 156 minutes played, Gustavsson has a .893 save percentage and 3.08 GAA, which is the best of the three Toronto netminders.
"He’s very calm and confident and I think that’s a good thing on a team," said Burke. "He doesn’t get very rattled very easily."
While it’s clear that Gustavsson has all the tools to be successful in the NHL, he’ll also have help making the transition to the NHL game and that help comes in the form of one of the top goaltending coaches in the world Francois Allaire. Allaire has previously worked with star goaltenders like Hall of Famer Patrick Roy, Stanley Cup winner and Conn Smythe winner J.S. Giguere, Phoenix starter Ilya Bryzgalov and Anaheim netminder Jonas Hiller.
Allaire was instrumental in helping Anaheim land Hiller. His presence in Toronto also helped convince Gustavsson sign with the Leafs.
"Of course," said Gustavsson smiling, "I knew about him before I signed here. Actually, I got the chance to practice with him for one week three years ago in Stockholm, my hometown, [where Alliare holds a goaltending camp each summer] so I knew a little bit what he was all about and what style he coached. I liked the style too so it’s been great for me to get the chance to work with him here now. He’s one of the best, maybe the best goalie coach there is. We see the game the same way so I think it’s going to be really, really good — I hope so at least."
But in the games, the just-turned 25-year-old will be alone when facing the puck, but he is handling the transition to the NHL nicely.
"Of course, everything is a higher level here," said Gustavsson. "It’s pretty high in Sweden too [but] because the ice surface is smaller here you have to always be ready for shots, shots from everywhere and good plays with good shots too. It feels like all the shots come [from] closer here than in Sweden and in Sweden they like to pass the puck more and then try to shoot so that’s the biggest difference."
And while time will tell if Burke and his team have succeeded in finding the goaltending they need to lift the team to a new level, what is clear is that they’ve succeeded in acquiring an extreme competitor.
"When I go out and play I always feel pressure but I think I feel the most pressure from myself," said Gustavsson. "You always want to go out there and win. You want to help the team. That’s why you go out and play. You want to compete. You want to win but I think that’s a good thing too that you feel that something is going to happen tonight that something is in the air. That you’re feeling a little bit excited and nervous. If I wouldn’t feel that way then I feel it’s time for me to quit because I wouldn’t want to win that much."
But while others may want to start a goaltending controversy, both Burke and Gustavsson are staying far away from that. Instead Gustavsson’s goals for this season remain simple.
"I just want to keep getting better and better and develop myself," said the Dandyerd, Sweden native. "It’s the first year for me here so lots of new things for me to learn so I’ve tried to pick up things from everywhere and tried to help the team the best way I can and if that’s in the net or at the bench or wherever then I am going to try and do my best. But of course you play hockey because you want to play games, but I know we’ve got some good goalies here too so I am not going to complain if I am not going to play. I’m just going to try and work hard and do my best and try to be better all the time."