The Gustavsson Decision


    jonas-gustavssonOne of the more enigmatic problems facing Brian Burke in an summer that will see much of the contemporary Buds negligible talent headed for the door, is the impending contract crunch of now go-to starter Jonas Gustavsson. Touted by many as the best netminder outside of the NHL last season, Gustavsson has shown exciting, if fleeting moments of the form that earned him widespread acclaim backstopping last season’s Elitserien champions Farjestads BK.

    Unfortunately, Gustavsson’s dominant play in the SEL has failed to translate on a consistent basis in the NHL and much of the season many saw as the coronation of a new number one has been overshadowed by a significant heart problem. Supraventricular tachycardia aside, Gustavsson’s woes in the aftermath of his worrisome sidelining have seemingly stemmed from a crisis of confidence borne out of the inconsistent, Jekyll and Hyde defense, The Monster has had to deal with on a night by night basis, as well as the organizations early and now aborted attempts at blooding Vesa Toskala as trade bait.

    Of course, the stunted training camp and subsequent, somewhat scarier December heart issue that resulted in the big Swede missing eight games has served its own part in derailing Gustavsson’s year. Out the gates from the pre season and in the earliest parts of the regular season, Gustavsson lived up to his billing as much as any rookie goalie could behind one of the league’s shakiest D’s and amid the most scrutinizing of local media’s.

    With lateral movement second to none, Gustavsson built a reputation on his speed between the pipes, his confidence on challenging shooters and his calm, methodical approach to the game. With size to attack in the butterfly that always eluded Toskala, the greatest concern with regards to Gustavsson’s consistency has been the breakdown of his core technique, particularly in the early parts of games.

    From swimming in the net, to issues regarding his lateral mobility and his questionable attempts at puckhandling; a combination of porous defending, deflated poise and injury have made it difficult to position Gustavsson within the long term Burkian jigsaw and yet, with his solitary contract year quickly winding out, the Leafs GM has got to decide whether he wants to stick or twist.

    The nexus of the problem surrounds the perceived, current value of Gustavsson in correlation with Gustavsson’s personal ambition and the dollar value Gustavsson’s agent has in his head over the potential trade weight of the goaltender.

    One would assume that, were Burke keen to wrap up Gustavsson for the foreseeable future, it would be as a starter, on a starters pay bracket (or around the $4 million Toskala enjoys for his increasingly abject play). This would not only be a sizeable commitment, regardless of any health concerns or questionable numbers pertaining to this season so far, it would also be a statement that Brian Burke could hang his Leafs career on, perhaps even more so than the signing of Phil Kessel.

    The middle-ground option would be to sign Gustavsson to another one or two year deal at increased cost. This would allow the organization to ascertain The Monster’s value to the franchise down the line, but it would also be a clear indication to Gustavsson that the struggling club he went out on a limb to join amid a myriad of stronger choices is showing a lack of faith and could be potentially damaging in any upcoming or future contract talks were he to breakout as a bona fide NHL caliber star.

    With a franchise now looking to enter a full-blown rebuild, the middle-ground option would also starve the Leafs of a vital piece so desperately required after years of poor shot-stopping; a sure-fire goaltending cornerstone from which to build out from, albeit one that has had less than one full season to blossom.

    The final, seemingly unthinkable option would be for Burke to go fish. Alluded to by many fly-by-night rumour merchants in recent weeks, the general theory is that Burke could potentially secure a first round draft pick with the netminder many around the league value as a premier prospect; regardless of mediocre rookie season numbers. Of course, unless Gustavsson states he wants out of Toronto when contract negotiations commence, one would have to ask; if an opposing GM was offering to pay a pick and a decent prospect for the impending free agent (the only feasible asking price), why would you trade him? After all, there is little in terms of top end goaltending prospects in the upcoming draft and, at 25, Gustavsson is considerably further along the arduous development curve for a netminder than any 17 or 18 year old headed for draft eligibility.

    Whilst pockets of angry fans may still bay for draft picks in light of deflated expectations, little of the faith and excitement that greeted Jonas Gustavsson has rubbed off despite a season that has, at its midpoint, flattered to deceive. With so many scapegoats to choose from, a panic trading of a goalie many still revere as a flag bearer to a new era of the Maple Leafs would not only be wildly out of character for Burke, but potentially devastating in the maelstrom of another poor year.

    With such great expectations placed on a rookie straight out of Europe, one can only imagine what a fully fit and blooded Gustavsson could do behind a consistently competent defence. Subsequently, if there is any truth to the rumours that Burke is considering shopping the Swede, it would likely be as an exercise of options in the face of a difficult decision. After the cloak-and-dagger-meets-bravado style in which Burke snatched the prospect away, it is unlikely The Monster will be plying his trade anywhere outside of Toronto next season.

    The real question remains; will Gustavsson return next season as another brick in the foundations of Burke’s rebuild, or remain mired as a mere stopgap in the Leafs barren goaltending depth chart. Whilst the heart suggests a long term, statement sending contract would do wonders for both Gustavsson and the franchise down the line, the brain points to the fist-clenching-face-pawing seasons spent watching career backups earn exuberant wages in the Toronto net.