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Gustavsson downturn echoes Leafs' woes at All-Star break

Toronto Maple Leafs' goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

Darren Calabrese

If there is an individual metaphor for the Toronto Maple Leafs' season so far, it is Jonas Gustavsson.

Once Jean-Sébastien Giguère arrived a year ago to share the goaltending load, Gustavsson played much better. So much better that hopes arose over the summer for his second NHL season, just as they did for the team. This season, the thinking went in some quarters, Gustavsson might move to the front ranks of NHL goaltenders and maybe the Leafs move into the playoffs.

Well, at the all-star break all that lies in ruins.

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Gustavsson, 26, has not played since a 7-0 shelling on Jan. 19 by the New York Rangers. The second-year netminder has an unenviable record of 6-13-2, a 3.29 goals-against average and a save percentage of .890.

James Reimer is now the fair-haired boy, having posted a 2.24 goals-against average and .933 save percentage since his latest promotion from the farm team to bump Gustavsson to No. 3 in an unwieldy three-man rotation the Leafs say they will use for now.

Team-wise, it is just as bad. The Leafs hit the all-star break with a 19-25-5 record, 12th in the Eastern Conference, and with no reasonable hope of making the playoffs. The only thing these guys have to play for is finishing above the bottom five so the hit on the remaining first-round pick the Boston Bruins have from the Phil Kessel trade is not quite so painful.

A look around the names on the dressing room stalls in the Leafs practice rink on Wednesday showed there were too many in the same boat as Gustavsson - not living up to expectations.

The list of those who exceeded expectations so far is short, indeed: The line of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur and defenceman Luke Schenn. That is about it among 24 players.

A look at the team's highest-paid players shows a consistent failure to live up to their pay cheques. Kessel may be going to the all-star game as the lone Maple Leafs representative but he is third in team scoring with 39 points in 49 games. Dion Phaneuf is starting to make a contribution with his physical play but his one goal and 11 points in 33 games are not the numbers of a $6.5-million-a-year (all currency U.S.) defenceman. Ditto for forwards Tyler Bozak, Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg, who all carry $3-million-plus cap hits, although Bozak can claim his actual salary is $875,000. Then again, if you are playing with Kessel and only have 20 points in 49 games that is still no bargain.

There are signs of hope, albeit rather faint. Now that enforcer Colton Orr is out indefinitely with a concussion, the fourth line of Tim Brent, Mike Brown and Jay Rosehill is scoring some goals. Not that that will light a fire under the soggy Leafs offence.

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When the Leafs return from their mini-vacation, the first job for general manager Brian Burke and head coach Ron Wilson will be to sort out their goaltenders. Carrying three goaltenders never works in the NHL.

The obvious solution is to send Gustavsson to the AHL farm team (Toronto Marlies) to play a bit and get his confidence back even if, as he insisted Wednesday, "mentally I feel good, physically I feel good, too." He also said he has no regrets about signing with the Leafs as a free agent.

But it isn't that simple. Gustavsson is on his second NHL contract and would have to clear NHL waivers in order to be sent to the Marlies. He can be sent across town for a two-week conditioning stint but the Leafs would have to get his permission.

At first, Gustavsson seemed disinclined to grant it when a group of reporters raised the possibility. But as the questioning went on, Gustavsson said, "If they want me to do something, of course I think I'll do it."

Burke said Wednesday he has no plans to ask Gustavsson to go to the Marlies "at this time."

We'll see what happens at another time, like the 3:10 p.m. practice time the Leafs have planned for next Monday to end the all-star break.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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