The NHL goaltender.
It has been said that there is no more important position in all of pro sports. Â And if you believe that, it’s quite easy to see why the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t had much regular season success in the post lockout NHL, and why the post season has eluded them.
Long before the NHL lockout, and in the years leading up to it, Leafs fans were, admittedly, spoiled. Â Goalies like Felix Potvin, Curtis Joseph, and Ed Belfour provided the blue and white with solid and often spectacular goaltending, efforts that perhaps helped their respective clubs overachieve.
We long ago became used to the idea that our goalie would steal games for us, in both the regular season and the post season, and it’s because they did it with such regularity.
Potvin rose to prominence in the 1992-1993 season when he showed spectacular reflexes and a no fear attitude that helped the Leafs reach the conference finals, where they were ultimately bested by the Los Angeles Kings…and Kerry Fraser.
Fast forward to the Curtis Joseph era, and while we certainly had a few talented forwards, Cujo became known as the messiah of the Air Canada Centre, and rightfully so. Â So often he stole points for the Leafs with his play, leading us, like Potvin before him, to great heights of success.
When Joseph left in 2002 to sign with the Red Wings for what he referred to as “a better chance at winning the cup” the Leafs were left with a gaping hole in between the pipes, and promptly filled it with Ed Belfour, a stellar goaltender in his earlier years, Belfour had more or less worn out his welcome in Dallas, and many were skeptical that the former Stanley Cup winning netminder could be the answers to the Leafs goalie situation.
He was. Â And then some.
Belfour proceeded to ease the pain of Curtis Joseph’s exit by leading the Leafs to second place within their division, and setting the record for most wins in a single season in the process. Â The next year, he continued to lead the Leafs charge into the post season. Â Belfour finished the 03-04 season with ten shutouts, a personal best, and also electrified Leafs Nation by shutting out the Senators three times in the opening round of the NHL playoffs.
In the years following the lockout, it has been a complete 180 for the Leafs in terms of their goaltending, and it’s no secret that their lack of success in the standings has been in direct relation.
Belfour returned after the lockout, but wasn’t the same, and goalies J.S. Aubin, Scott Clemmensen, Mikael Tellqvist, Andrew Raycroft, Justin Pogge, Martin Gerber, Joey MacDonald, another go around for Curtis Joseph, and Vesa Toskala couldn’t provide the team with the type of goaltending that Potvin, Joseph, and Belfour before them had, at least not for prolonged stretches.
And while you could hardly call the Toronto Maple Leafs a good offensive team, and while for the most part they didn’t employ the best defensive tactics, one couldn’t help but put the majority of the blame on the goaltending, which had gone from being steady and spectacular to speculative and sad sack in the post lockout years.
Aubin and Clemmensen were good soldiers for the Leafs, and provided a few sparks for the team, but they were not long term answers. Â Mikael Tellqvist and Justin Pogge, once goalies who some had high hopes for, couldn’t cut it in between the pipes for the Leafs. Â Martin Gerber was nothing more than a stop gap, as was MacDonald, and I am sure enough has been written about Andrew Raycroft by now.
As for Toskala, despite overpaying for the Finnish born goalie when the deal was made on the draft floor, it appeared that the Leafs would finally get a goalie who brought consistency, and a compete level that would give the team confidence going forward. Â At least that’s what most gathered from his time in San Jose.
For whatever reason, it didn’t go as planned.
Maybe the fact he only made half the starts in San Jose as he did with the Leafs masked some of the flaws in his game. Â Maybe the work load in Toronto was simply too much for him (in both mind and body.) Â One really will never know why Vesa Toskala appeared to be starting goalie material in San Jose, only to come to Toronto and have a meltdown so severe that he currently can not find an NHL job.
And those woes certainly epitomize why Brian Burke went to such great lengths to secure the services of Jonas Gustavsson, one of the latest “late bloomers” players who have become popular fodder for fans and GM’s alike since the inception of the salary cap. Â With constraints on how much each team can spend, it has forced some to go into a “no stone unturned” mentality, and the results have been favourable for some teams.
Count the Maple Leafs among them.
After signing Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson the summer prior, both young forwards who, while they bring different skill sets to the job, appear to be players the Leafs can use going forward, particularly Bozak, who took spins on a line with Phil Kessel this past year.
On July 7th, 2009, Brian Burke once again flexed the salesman muscle and lured Gustavsson to Toronto. Â He signed a one year deal with the Team and reported to Toronto that summer, to get acclimated to his new surroundings.
And while year one wasn’t the smoothest for “The Monster”, Leafs fans were treated, at least glimpses of a goaltender who could once again steal games for the club.
Despite battling personal family issues, as well as heart abnormalities, Gustavsson showed enough promise to Leafs fans that finally, after years of searching, a long term option might finally be available when it relates to the goalie situation. Â Gustavsson finished the season with a 16-15-9 record, which included seven straight wins in the month of March, which tied the record for most among Leafs rookie goalies.
Then, on January 31st, that fateful Sunday that will, one way or another, have forever changed the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, Burke went for a little California comfort.
Aside from the multi player trade with the Calgary Flames that brought the Leafs Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom and Keith Aulie, the Leafs GM went to his former club, and looking to continue to shore the goaltending situation, went for familiarity.
Burke traded the maligned Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake to the Anaheim Ducks for J.S. Giguere, a former Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe winning goalie who had fallen out of favour with Anaheim due to the rise of Swiss netminder Jonas Hiller.
Despite the large dollar amount connected to his contract, Burke saw a worthy investment in Giguere, the big goalie who had led Burke to his first Stanley Cup in 2007, while with the Ducks. Â It wasn’t just the goaltending skills, and winning pedigree Giguere brought to the occasion. Â While his .916 save percentage was nothing to sneeze at during his time with the Leafs, it was off the ice he made the biggest impact.
He was instrumental in teaching Gustavsson along the way. Â He was there as a constant soundboard and source of support for the young Swedish goalie, and was there to insulate him and provide steady goaltending to push Gustavsson as the season wore on.
This year, the Leafs are banking on getting healthy, consistent goaltending from both Gustavsson and Giguere, and despite all the changes made to the forwards and defense group, it is the goaltending that will decide just how far this Maple Leafs team goes this year.
The fate of the Maple Leafs, as it is for most every team in the league, is in the hands of their goaltenders. Â And for the Leafs organization, it may be the first time in a while where those hands are steady enough to carry them forward.