When I spoke with Jonas ‘The Monster’ Gustavsson in late August, the young Swedish netminder – charged with bolstering the Toronto Maple Leafs crease – was still new to the city. At age 24, he was coming to a rabid hockey market and was looking forward to all the pressures and challenges of being a Leaf. Lanky and chilled out, it’s clear he’s only a monster when the facemask is pulled down and there are pucks to stop.
Not that Toronto fans care about the demeanor of their netminders at this point.
But coming to the NHL after years in Europe can be an interesting challenge for a player. With each new season, at least a handful of teams pluck a hot player from The Continent, hoping his magic in those funny-looking uniforms with the ads on them translates to this side of the Atlantic.
For position players, this rarely works out.
Just to be clear, I’m talking about skaters who come to the NHL in their mid-20s and beyond; not a top prospect like Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom or L.A.’s Anze Kopitar. I’m talking about guys like Jaroslav Hlinka, touted by none other than Czech countryman Milan Hejduk as another great offensive weapon in Colorado for the 2007-08 season.
Hlinka was the co-reigning scoring champ of the Czech League the year prior, but put up just 28 points in 63 games in Colorado, meaning he scored less than Tyler Arnason. Undaunted, the Avs went out the next summer and grabbed Per Ledin, a gritty left winger out of Sweden who played just three games in the NHL last year, then trashed the Avs publicly on his way out the door.
Fabian Brunnstrom, The Next Big Thing who rose from obscurity to become the darling of the pundit circuit last summer, wasn’t exactly the second coming of Peter Forsberg, much to the chagrin of the Dallas Stars who “won” his services over many other suitors.
Now, Brunnstrom is the youngest of this crop and maybe he’ll grow into the sniper many thought he would be, but maybe it should be no surprise the real free agent steal of last summer went to Detroit.
Ville Leino finished the 2007-08 season with 28 goals and 77 points playing for Jokerit Helsinki in his native Finland – good enough for second in league scoring. But on the stacked Red Wings, he was initially sent to Grand Rapids of the American League and then brought up in the second half of the season. In 13 games with Detroit, Leino put up nine points in about 12 minutes of ice time per game and will surely get more in 2009-10.
Getting back to Gustavsson, what should Toronto fans expect from ‘The Monster’? If recent history is any indicator, goalies who come over from Europe after several years in the pro ranks tend to do quite well.
Henrik Lundqvist came to the NHL as a 23-year-old and immediately posted a 2.24 goals-against average for the New York Rangers, garnering All-Rookie Team honors in the process. Similarly, Niklas Backstrom of the Wild delivered a 1.97 GAA and five shutouts in 41 games for Minnesota as a 28-year-old NHL newbie in 2006-07.
Gustavsson has already experienced pressure in his instantly legendary Swedish playoff run last season. After two rounds, he had a .979 save percentage, stopping 194 of 198 shots and recording a shutout streak of 240 minutes and 25 seconds, obliterating the previous playoff mark of 175 minutes and 20 seconds, held by Lundqvist.
His Farjestad team won the Swedish title in spectacular fashion, dropping just one game in the post-season and the frenzy for Gustavsson was on soon after.
For a weary Leaf Nation, recent history at least points to big things for life with ‘The Monster.’
Introducing ‘The Monster’
REPORTER: Ryan Kennedy / PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.