A Look at the Future between the Pipes

A Look at the Future between the Pipes

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    As the goals against continue to pile up, so do the questions regarding the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ future between the pipes. Last night’s 7-5 drubbing at the hands of the Boston Bruins officially moved the Leafs to the basement of the NHL in terms of goaltending and defensive play with an astounding total of 274 goals allowed (3.41 GAA). Combine that with a league worst 88.4% save percentage and you’ve got some serious issues. The team directly above them? Andrew Raycroft and the Colorado Avalanche. Ugh.

    It’s no secret that defense and goaltending wins you championships. Ron Wilson was brought in to implement a physical, defensively responsible system. Fletcher continued this theme by going out and trading up to grab the draft‘s prized defensive defenseman in Luke Schenn, signing stay-at-home defenseman Jeff Finger and then two-way forward Niklas Hagman. He also shipped out the much magligned turnover machine that was Bryan McCabe and opted for a more reliable two-way defender in Mike Van Ryn. And they also bought out Andrew “Let’s blame everything on him” Raycroft. These moves were supposed to help improve upon Toronto’s previous rankings as the team with the 4th most goals allowed and 2nd worst save percentage, but well, it didn’t.

    This season, they’ve tried to throw everything at the wall to see if anything sticks. Vesa Toskala has taken several steps backward and has looked tremendously inconsistent, posting a horrid 3.26 GAA and .891% SV%, numbers worse than the 2.99 GAA and .894 SV% that made Andrew Raycroft lose the #1 job back in 2007. Curtis Joseph was brought in to be a warm body on the bench and has not been much more than that, with a 3.62 GAA and .863 SV%. So when Burke came in, they decided to see what they had on the farm, bringing up Justin Pogge for spot starts, where he too has been very inconsistent, putting up pond hockey like stats: 4.36 GAA and a .844 SV%.

    Clearly, goaltending is one of the more pressing issues to address this offseason for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Where have we heard that before?

    With the team in rebuilding mode, you’ve got to figure that (hopefully) Burke will be looking for a more long-term option between the pipes. The present guy is not doing the job, and the future guy has not exactly shown enough for you to put all your eggs into that basket. So, you’ve got yourself a few options: sign a free agent, trade for a young goalie, or draft a bluechip goalie prospect.

    On the free agent market, there isn’t a whole lot to look forward to that would make sense for the long-term goals of the Leafs, especially now that Backstrom has re-signed long-term in Minnesota. However, that does seem to make 24 year old Josh Harding potentially available. Harding boasts an impressive career 2.48 GAA and a .920 SV%  through 57 NHL games played, including 42 starts. Granted, it’s a small sample size, but Josh has also posted some impressive AHL numbers: 2.01 GAA and .930 SV% in ’04-05, 2.68 GAA and .919 SV% in ’05-’06, and 2.48 GAA and .920 SV% in ’06-’07. This season, at the NHL level, he boasts an outstanding 2.15 GAA with a robust .932 SV% through 18 games played. If I’m Burke, this guy is my number one priority.

    Another possibility would be to look to Nashville where David Poile has collected a treasure trove of goaltending. At the NHL level, 28 year old Dan Ellis (career 2.62 GAA and .913 SV%) is most likely expendable with the emergence of Pekka Rinne (2.24 GAA and .922 SV%), who if not for Steve Mason, would likely be among the Calder favourites. Not sure if Ellis is really “THE” guy you want on a championship team though. Either that, or you can target prospect Chet Pickhard, who won world junior gold with Team Canada and owns a 2.28 GAA and .921 SV% in his last year in the Western Hockey League.

    If you’d prefer to draft your own guy, then there are a couple intriguing names in the Entry Draft this coming June. Toronto has a couple 2nd round picks to play with, and at least one of the following names figures to fall within that range or slightly before (in which case Toronto can throw in another pick to move up). Olivier Roy is a boom or bust goalie in the QMJHL who has been compared to Marc Andre Fleury, and has tremendous upside. You’ve also got the top ranked North American goaltender, Edward Pasquale from Saginaw of the OHL, who looked impressive in the CHL prospects game as he dueled Roy head-to-head. The top ranked American goalie is Mike Lee from Fargo of the USHL. And the top ranked European goalie, who is arguably the top name in the draft (and 1st round material) is Robin Lehner, a massive Swedish goaltender in the Henrik Lundqvist mold.

    Speaking of huge, Swedish goalies in the Lundqvist mold, there is one more off the board option to consider. Over in the Swedish Elitserien, there is a 24 year old undrafted goalie by the name of Jonas Gustvasson who sent waves throughout the scouting world when he broke the SEL’s record for consecutive playoff minutes without a allowing a goal (180), a record previously set by Henrik Lundqvist. He then went on to break the 17 year old record of 202 minutes (either season or postseason). Like Lehner, Gustvasson also draws a lot of comparisons to Lundqvist because of his size, his composure, and his flawless technique. A typical late bloomer, Gustavsson has posted a 1.96 GAA and .932 SV% this season (eerily similar to Lundqvist’s 1.79 GAA and .936% during his last year in the SEL), conveniently right before he is about to hit free agency this summer. He is expected to garner a ton of interest from NHL teams.

    These are but some of the many options that Brian Burke must consider as he enters a crucial offseason for the the Leafs. But the one problem with some of these scenarios is that he still has Vesa Toskala under contract. If you’re looking to draft or trade for a goalie prospect, then you’re fine. But if you’re going to trade for another goalie, then you recreate the same controversy as the Toskala/Raycroft dilemma of last season. Neither goalie will be all that pleased. Not only that, but if you choose to go after a free agent like Gustavsson, you’re likely not going to be able to pitch him the promise of ice-time, like a Colorado or Edmonton or even Detroit possibly could. It’s not going to be easy.

    Always a pleasure,

    Alex Tran

    [email protected]

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