Takin' a T/O With BT: Toskala and Gustavsson—Pedaling the Bike Together?

xx yySenior Writer IOctober 7, 2009

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 1:  Vesa Toskala #35 of the Toronto Maple Leafs watches for a shot in a game against the Montreal Canadiens on October 1, 2009 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario. The Canadiens dfeated the Leafs 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Without disagreement, differences, or discrepancies, life would be pretty boring.

Everyone would get along, there’d be no differing opinions, and politics would have no playing field—leaving people like Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to their second careers.

If everything was simply cut and dried, then Leafs fans wouldn’t be forcing this decision on Ron Wilson’s hands:

Do you start European veteran Jonas Gustavsson, or two-year Leaf Vesa Toskala?

For many, the decision is an easy one.

Toskala, after providing relief from Andrew Raycroft two years ago, fell quickly from grace. There were accusations about his practice habits last year, while many felt he simply wasn’t at his best.

It was later revealed that Toskala wasn’t. The biggest indicator of that was when he was shut down on Trade Deadline day with hip and groin surgery, and replaced with Martin Gerber.

The Gerber Baby Food experiment didn’t work out, and with the exit of Curtis Joseph, there was a hole behind (or beside if you look at it as a 1A/1B scenario) Toskala.

Enter Jonas Gustavsson: A highly touted Swedish netminder, ready to take his game to the next level in the NHL—he only needed a destination.

Leafs’ management proved that they wanted the man they call the "Monster," going across the globe for him. As Burke’s pursuit of him ended successfully, the heat on V-Tosk was turned up immensely once the big lanky Swede put pen to paper.

There was now a legitimate (or at that point, Leafs fans hopefully assumed legitimate) challenge to Toskala, and no one was giving him much leeway.

With the new addition, fans and analysts alike had one of two wavelengths about Toskala: Either he was going to bounce-back in a big way, acting as the backbone for a team that could surprise and inch it’s way into the playoff picture, or he’d fall victim to more of the same struggles as the "Monster" waited in the wings.

Early on this season there hasn’t been much change—Toskala was left out to dry by a team that looked mysteriously like last year's edition; while Jonas Gustavsson looked strong behind a disorganized team in Washington, and played well against the Ottawa Senators when the rest of the team was described (in the nicest way possible) as flat.

Easy decision right? Just go with Jonas Gustavsson’s hot hand and ride it as along as you can after those performances, leaving number 35 out in the cold.

That may be one solution, but it may also be a tad hasty.

There is a lot about Gustavsson that makes him the ideal candidate to keep running with the starter’s job: He’s got great size, he positions himself well, and he’s very athletic. Even the one perceived advantage that Toskala has over the rookie—experience—isn’t entirely accurate, as Gustavsson played some outstanding hockey in the Swedish Elite League over the past two years, punctuated by leading his team to a championship.

As far as rookies go, you can’t get a much better pedigree than that from a European “prospect.”

Toskala meanwhile, was once good enough to challenge Evgeni Nabokov for the starter’s role in San Jose and win 33 games for the Leafs in 2007-08.

Some believe he still is that good. After all, talent very rarely disappears over night (although it’s not unheard of).

What may have been lacking, was motivation—not from inside, but from an exterior source.

When he struggled last year, Toskala was faced with the prospect of being replaced by either Curtis Joseph or Justin Pogge. While the play of neither goaltender inspired much fear in V-Tosk, Toskala came back after each of CuJo’s games and earned his team at least a point eight of 11 times (His record was 3-3-5). While he did have a handful of high-scoring games, he also allowed three goals or fewer in seven of those games.

Down the stretch, when the question was asked too often about his abilities or the possibility of being a one-year wonder, Toskala responded.

Remember, this is a guy that got the Leafs a point in 12 of 13 games from Jan. 21 to Mar. 3, winning seven of those games.

He was also being left out to dry by a defense that visibly needed improvement, and got it over the winter—the problem is that the new pieces probably haven’t meshed yet.

But let’s recap: You have two goalies. One that’s a big, athletic, Swedish stopper who’s looked very good in recent action, and you have an NHL veteran who seems to play his best when he’s challenged.

So why not use that in your favor if you’re Toronto?

Utilize the fact that Jonas Gustavsson is hungry to prove himself at the NHL level, but also be aware (if you’re the Leafs), that the man fans want sitting behind him now, isn’t chopped liver—Toskala just seems to need a true challenge, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

European experience or not, Gustavsson still has never played the North American game before—something European counterparts Kari Lehtonen and Pekka Rinne did in the AHL—before coming to the NHL. There are still going to be learning points for him, so full-on starting duty isn’t necessarily the best option.

In the games he does play, if the Monster puts out consistently good efforts, Toskala will have no recourse other than to raise his game. If he does, then the Leafs have the perfect tandem. If not, then Gustavsson may hold the inside track.

For Vesa he’s got to pedal, or else he’ll be riding second seat on this bicycle.

Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile, or you can email him at bryanthiel74@hotmail.com. You can also check out his previous work in his archives.


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