If the Toronto Maple Leafs reach their goal of making the playoffs this year, it’ll be in large part thanks to their upgrades in net.
The trio of Vesa Toskala, Jonas Gustavsson and Joey MacDonald bring promise of a better season between the pipes for the Blue and White based on potential and experience.
And while that argument was disproven last year when the tumultuous trio of Toskala, Curtis Joseph and Justin Pogge (and later Martin Gerber) ranked 30th in goals against, there is legitimate reason to believe that the top three goalies are a definite improvement.
Toskala had quite possibly his worst campaign last year, finishing with a 3.26 goals against average and an .891 save percentage. He appeared to be hobbled by injuries most of the season, and was finally shut down in March after the acquisition of Gerber.
This year, the Finnish netminder has come into camp and appeared healthy in pre-season action. His mobility and positioning looks better, a good sign that he’s both physically and mentally ready to knock last year’s woes clear from memory.
He’ll need to do so, because unlike last year, he has a challenger waiting in the wings.
General Manager Brian Burke flew to Sweden in order to sway Gustavsson to the Leafs and surely one of the GM’s selling points was the chance to steal significant ice time.
Gustavsson, known as “The Monster,” played 42 games for Farjestads of the Swedish Elite League, posting a superb 1.96 GAA and a .932 save percentage.
He upped his stock in the playoffs, registering a 1.03 GAA and a .961 save percentage en route to winning the SEL’s championship.
Apart from a period on Friday and two more Saturday, there really isn’t anything to go on for Gustavsson in the NHL. He does look very calm in the crease and his six-foot-three frame allows him to cover the top of the net while in the butterfly.
“That’s why we pursued him so hard,” Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said. “We thought he was the best goalie not in the NHL.”
Gustavsson also made the save of the pre-season Saturday night when he robbed Johan Ryno on a 2-on-0 with a right pad save while doing the splits.
“He’s had three periods so far and he’s looked good, but we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” Wilson said.
While some would compare his hype with that of Justin Pogge’s, Gustavsson has done something that the former Leaf did not dominate in a professional league.
Should either falter, or play well enough to make the other expendable, the Leafs have MacDonald to go to.
Last season, he took over for the injured Rick DiPietro in Long Island and put up an impressive .901 save percentage with the league’s worst team.
Although he likely wouldn’t be chosen to start for Toronto in any must-win situation, he does provide additional depth to an area of concern in recent years by being a serviceable backup.
The mantra preached by Wilson upon his arrival was that of defence first. The goaltender can play a very important part of that equation.
An impressive 6-2 start to the pre-season coupled with a .909 save percentage before Saturday’s game means that the Leaf goalies have looked good to this point.
But pre-season and the regular season are two very different creatures, and it’ll be up to these netminders to prove that they really are an upgrade on last year’s edition.