Earlier today on a certain Toronto radio show, a grim portrait of Jonas Gustavsson’s future was painted, citing the 32 games he has appeared in so far in his career – most of those starts behind a lacklustre team – as evidence that he may never develop into the sort of goaltender the Leafs envisioned when signing him out of the Swedish Elite League.
The crux of the argument was that 32 games should be enough for Gustavsson to have shown some ability to adapt to goaltending coach Francois Allaire’s techniques, and that at 25 years of age it may be too late for him to make the necessary adjustments for NHL success.
However, absent of any relevant comparative analysis, as this argument was, one is inclined to say “back up the truck, buck.”
True, Jonas Gustavsson is 25 years old. What gets lost, however, is the fact that he is a true NHL rookie. Not only is this his first experience playing at hockey’s highest level, it is also his first real experience with North American hockey, period. The game is vastly different in a smaller rink (his tendency to kick out rebounds is evidence of habits one can get away with in larger SEL rinks, where net-crashing is a much less common occurence), and accordingly 32 games will not necessarily be enough to overcome the learning curve.
Francois Allaire, the goaltending guru who turned Patrick Roy into a Hall-of-Fame netminder, and who revamped Jean-Sebastian Giguere’s style to the tune of a Conn Smythe trophy and Stanley Cup, is without a doubt the man in the best position to offer an opinion on the progression, and potential, of Jonas Gustavsson. Here’s what he had to say, following the acquisition of J-S Giguere the other week:
“If we want to really develop Jonas the best way, it will be to train him more and play a little bit less. Jonas this year has to learn everything: new rinks, new team, new league, new country, new food. Everything at the same time. The schedule’s not easy as well, four games in a week many times. There was no break and no time to practise.
He tries everything we ask him to do. It was a tough situation for him. Everything I ask him to do in practice, in the gym, on video, he has been outstanding.”
So. The renowned goaltending guru offers a perfectly valid and reasonable opinion on why Gustavsson’s development has had its ups and downs … and is completely ignored by members of the MSM, who continue to push the notion that Gustavsson may not have what it takes to be an NHL starter. Because, you know, 32 games of NHL experience, as a rookie, is apparently more than enough to tell whether or not a goaltender has an NHL future.
It seems to be an odd argument given the factors involved, but okay, even at that point I understand how people could be swayed into buying that analysis. Perhaps Allaire is just talking up one of his guys, not wanting to derail his player’s confidence.
But before we commit to buying into an argument on the sheer principle that it happens to be the opinion of a member of the media, let’s take a look at Giguere’s success under Allaire. Call it comparison for comparison’s sake.
When Giguere first arrived in Anaheim, in 2000, he was 23 years old. Allaire had been with Anaheim for four years, having turned Guy Hebert into a starter of note in the late-90s. Already at that point, Giguere, once a highly-rated prospect, was carrying the “bust” label.
During Giguere’s first year in Anaheim, and under Allaire, he posted good, but not star-quality, numbers as a backup to the then-struggling (and soon to be traded) Hebert. In 34 games, Giguere posted an 11-17-5 record, with a 2.57 GAA (t-24th overall) and .911 SV% (14th overall).
However, it was during his second season (2001-02), as he began to get comfortable within Allaire’s technique, that Giguere’s statistics began to garner attention. At the age of 24, he appeared in 51 games, posting a 20-25-6 record, 2.13 GAA (5th overall) and .920 SV% (t-5th overall). Those numbers are all the more astounding considering the team finished 23rd overall in league standings that season.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
So let’s extrapolate that success to the situation faced by Jonas Gustavsson.
Consider that Giguere had the advantage of growing up in North America, and playing in North American rinks his entire life. Consider also that Giguere had the advantage of several years’ worth of NHL experience.
Gustavsson, on the other hand, must face several adjustments, both on and off the ice, that Giguere did not (as outlined above by Allaire). In 32 games played, Gustavsson has a 9-13-8 record, with a 3.07 GAA, and .898 SV%. Admittedly, those numbers appear underwhelming on the surface; yet, when examined in the context of the way the team in front of him performed for much of the season (especially on the penalty-kill), the numbers are about what one would expect from a rookie netminder on a defensively-challenged team.
True, Gustavsson has many holes in his game, notably rebound control, puck-handling, and a tendency to over-commit to the shooter (which prevents him from being able to adequately recover on many of those rebounds). However, those are all technique-based issues. The intangibles, the aspects of the game that cannot be taught — a willingness to be aggressive and challenge the shooter, and his ability to maintain focus after allowing a bad goal, and his practice and video room habits as noted by Allaire — have been present from day one.
The point is, 32 games of a rookie season, on a team whose defensive play has been (until recently) embarrassingly bad, is simply not enough to justifiably make an assessment on a rookie netminder’s NHL future. Especially when his struggles are a product of factors which are tangible, as opposed to intangible.
J-S Giguere began to find success in his second year in Francois Allaire’s system, at age 24. Is there any real evidence to suggest Gustavsson can’t adapt in similar fashion, in his second year in the system, when he will be 26 years old (and much more comfortable in North America, both on and off the ice)?
Like anything, patience is the key. Gustavsson has shown enough flashes in the games he has played to suggest there is room to grow, and his coaches have yet to express any concerns whatsoever with his progress to date. Next season he will in all likelihood continue his progression as a backup (or possible 1B) to Giguere, with an eye on taking over the starter’s role in 2011-12.
The bottom line is, at this point in time Gustavsson continues to offer plenty of hope for the future. However, expectations for immediate results must be kept in check; he has had to manage several simultaneous adjustments, and has still been able to post respectable numbers for a rookie goaltender on a team in a state of flux. One must recognize just how steep the learning curve is, and harbor a realistic expectation for how much time the process may take.
Granted, if he shows no noticeable signs of progression toward the end of next season, in his second year under Allaire and with a full year of adapting to life in North America under his belt, at that point concerns about his future based solely upon the stat line will be far more justifiable. But for now, it’s simply far too early to make that assessment.
A final note: the acquisition of Giguere was not a move borne of little faith in the progress of Gustavsson; rather, it was a move conceived (in part) to further his development by providing a mentor who (a) had his share of struggles as a young player in the league; (b) knows Allaire’s technique inside-out; and (c) was a very effective (and willing) mentor to another young goaltender in Anaheim. There is nothing but good news, in terms of Gustavsson’s opportunity to maximize his potential within this arrangement.
Looking forward to your thoughts as always,