It’s been a hell of a calendar year for Maple Leafs netminder Jonas Gustavsson.
‘The Monster’ rose to prominence last season in the Swedish Elite League after posting sparkling numbers during the regular season (he led the league with a 1.96 goals-against average and .931 save percentage) and ridiculous numbers during the post-season (1.03 GAA, .961 SP, five shutouts in 13 games played) while leading his Farjestad club to the Swedish Elite League championship.
A bidding war for his NHL rights, eventually won by Toronto, began last summer. The wunderkind was signed by the Leafs to provide solid backup netminding to incumbent No. 1 Vesa Toskala and serious competition for the starter’s job generally.
But everything went pear-shaped from there.
Within hours of training camp beginning, Gustavsson was diagnosed with a heart condition that required ablation surgery to counteract an irregular cardiac rhythm. It was a minor, but nonetheless scary, situation for anyone.
He returned in time for Toronto’s second game of the season, but before long was again on the shelf with a groin problem. Then, in early December, the irregular heartbeat returned and a second surgery was required.
Couple his physical setbacks with the mental stress of playing under the intense scrutiny of fans and media in Toronto and this season has been nothing short of baptism by fire for the 25-year-old netminder.
Last week after yet another loss – and prior to the acquisition of J-S Giguere – I caught up with the then-No. 1 netminder Gustavsson post-game to gauge his thoughts on the trials and tribulations of his rookie NHL season.
“I feel pretty good,” Gustavsson said when asked about the physical ailments he’s faced this season. “If I didn’t have the heart issues, maybe I’d be more tired; I got a chance to rest a couple of weeks.
“I think, in the long run, maybe it was good for me to keep my energy level high. But it’s hard to speculate how it would be otherwise. Of course, you want to be on the ice as much as possible…but I can’t think about what would happen if I didn’t have (the heart problems).”
So Gustavsson is looking on the bright side of things when it comes to his time away from the net this season, but what of his season on the ice? He was reticent to discuss the mental fatigue of playing on a bad Maple Leafs team, but I took that to mean it was because he doesn’t feel too much pressure, not because of any typical NHLer closed-mouthedness.
The affable Gustavsson seems to be about as laid-back as they come. He’s always available after games and is open enough to admit his mistakes and answer questions candidly. Arriving in Toronto must have been a shock to his system; there are few places in the hockey world where the team and individual players are scrutinized as much. And there isn’t anywhere with a larger media presence.
Gustavsson will get a respite now. Sunday’s trades with Calgary and Anaheim mean new Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf will be under the gun to perform on the ice and with the media hordes at the Air Canada Centre. More importantly, Giguere arrived in Toronto to replace the departed Toskala and take over as the Maple Leafs’ starting netminder.
Giguere is a stopgap, to be sure; as much a mentor for his younger sidekick as anything. Gustavsson has publically expressed his willingness to relinquish the No. 1 job for the time being to learn from Giguere – a Conn Smythe Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champ – and goalie coach Francois Allaire.
Gustavsson will only be better for the trials and tribulations he’s faced on and off the ice this season. His berth on the Swedish Olympic team will also add to that maturation.
“I know (the NHL) is the next step, the next level,” he said when asked if this year has been hard for him after all the success he had last season. “It’s always tough when you move up a level, but so far I’ve been having a great time here; trying to get better all the time and trying to learn.
“Even if you win or lose, it’s always a good experience for me to get in those games. But, of course, it would be fun if we started winning a little bit more.”
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