TORONTO – There’s a monster waiting in the wings for the winless Toronto Maple Leafs.
Goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, dubbed “The Monster” by his former Swedish league coach, is quietly sitting on the sidelines and looking forward to his first career NHL start.
It could come as soon as Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators, although Leafs coach Ron Wilson has yet to reveal his goaltending plans. Gustavsson is good to go if Wilson elects to start him over Vesa Toskala.
“If he wants me to play, of course I’m ready,” Gustavsson said Monday after practice. “That’s why I’m here. I want to play and try to contribute something to the team. … I feel I’m ready.”
After a pair of losses to open the season, many Leaf fans are already anxious to see him get a start. The 24-year-old Gustavsson was a hotly pursued free agent that Leafs GM Brian Burke called the best goalie outside of the NHL last season.
He saw his first regular-season action in relief of Toskala during Saturday’s 6-4 loss in Washington, allowing three goals in 40 minutes of work. The game was already out of reach when Gustavsson entered and he can’t really be blamed for any of the goals that beat him.
When asked about which goalie would start against the Sens on Tuesday, Wilson advised reporters to watch for “who comes out of the tunnel first.” Besides that, he didn’t really tip his hand.
“This isn’t about Jonas, this isn’t about Vesa – this is about us trying to win hockey games,” said Wilson.
Gustavsson’s time is bound to come soon and will complete a rapid journey to the NHL.
At this time last year, he was unknown and undrafted, playing behind Reinhard Divis with the Swedish team Farjestad. Gustavsson ended up stealing the No. 1 job after the second game of the season and eventually led the team to a championship, drawing the attention of several NHL scouts in the process.
It was during a hot run last season when the six-foot-three netminder earned his nickname as Farjestad coach Tommy Samuelsson opined to reporters that he had a monster in goal.
Gustavsson ended up choosing to sign with the Maple Leafs over the summer because he saw an opportunity to play and liked the city. The Swede seems to have enjoyed his first couple months of living in Toronto.
“There’s some food I like to eat back home that I can’t find here,” said Gustavsson. “Just small things. I don’t miss that much from back home.”
One setback came when he failed a written test for his driver’s license because he didn’t realize there were some different road rules between the countries. Teammate Garnet Exelby has been nice enough to drive him from his downtown condo to the team’s suburban practice rink on off days.
Gustavsson also managed to get a taste of home during a recent visit to Ikea, where he picked up some Swedish caviar and a couple pieces of furniture.
“I bought a couch and a bed,” said Gustavsson, who is earning US$967,500 this season. “It’s not maybe the most fancy, but it’s enough for me. A good price.”
Very little seems to faze him. After missing most of training camp because of minor heart surgery, he didn’t allow a goal over three periods of pre-season action against the Detroit Red Wings.
The soft-spoken goaltender comes across as laidback during interviews and has a dry wit – two characteristics that should serve him well in a market where Wilson says the team is under an “electron microscope.”
The coach was particularly unhappy to see Toskala get so heavily criticized after just two games of the regular season. Wilson believes some blame should also go to a defence that has resembled one from a “peewee” team.
“It’s so unfair just to point fingers at the goalie,” he said. “When other guys were getting beat up the ice, 3-on-1s, the goalie didn’t yell at somebody to fall down or make a bad decision so that you’re facing a 3-on-1.”
Several players agreed with that assessment.
Newcomers Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin both acknowledged that they’ve been guilty of trying to do too much, with Beauchemin saying that there are “no excuses” for his poor play. Even Toskala admitted that he was at fault for Alex Ovechkin’s goal just over a minute into Saturday’s game.
The Finn had groin surgery in the off-season and believes it’s only a matter of time before he finds his form.
“It’s only two games into the season,” said Toskala. “It’s still going to be a long season. I feel pretty good and I’m sure I’m going to do (some) good things.”
Gustavsson is confident that he’ll have some memorable moments as well. It may end up taking a little time so Gustavsson intends to remain patient until given the opportunity.
“Of course you want to play,” he said. “But that’s not up to me to decide. That’s up to the coaches.”