Oh to be back in 2002.
The Leafs made it to the conference finals, Mats Sundin had 80 points and Tie Domi racked up eight full periods worth of penalties. The Leafs also had consistency in net, something they have searched for since Curtis Joseph's departure at the end of 2001-2002.
For a while the Leafs thought they had found it in veteran Ed Belfour, who produced two stellar seasons for the team in 2003 and 2004 but failed to return to form after the lockout.
Since the lockout, the Achilles heel of the Leafs has been goaltending. In the four seasons after Belfour’s departure, 14 different goalies have seen time between the pipes.
During last season, which culminated in the embarrassing second worst record, it may have been goaltending that really sunk the Leaf’s chances. They finished almost dead last in goals against and only J.S. Giguère, a trade deadline acquisition, posted a top 30 save percentage.
But as the saying goes it’s better to look to the future than dwell on the past and next season’s goaltending looks to be improved.
The newest Leaf goalie is Cornell’s Ben Scrivens. Signed to a one year contract, the undrafted Scrivens started three years for the Big Red amassing a total of 62 wins in his 105 starts.
Though the win total isn’t overwhelmingly impressive, Scrivens consistently proved himself to be a top tier NCAA goalie. As a starter he never finished out of the top 10 in goals against or save percentage and in his final year led the NCAA with a .934 save percentage and minuscule 1.87 goals against average.
Scrivens is built much like Jonas Gustavsson, standing some 6’2" and weighing in at 180 pounds. Scrivens is likely to compete for the Marlies starting job against new-comer Jussi Rynnäs. However, with just the one year deal and strong college performance, this seems too good a deal for the Leafs, who could refine his strong raw talent.
If Gustavsson is The Monster, then recent addition Jussi Rynnäs is The Giant. Standing at a towering 6’5" and weighing in at 215 pounds, the big Finnish goalie should have no problem covering the net.
Though only playing a year in the top Finnish league, Rynnäs put up very impressive numbers on a very poor team. Finishing the season with a 14-13-1 record, Rynnäs had a .920 save percentage and let in just 2.5 goals a game.
Like Scrivens and Gustavsson before him, the Leafs did not opt to sign a long-term deal with the import, instead inking him for just two seasons. Also like Scrivens, Rynnäs will probably compete for the Marlies job.
It is likely that his first season will be troublesome as he adjusts to the speed, size and skill of the North American game, but he too looks like a strong talent in the Leaf’s goaltending stable.
In a team loaded with youth, Giguère is the old hand.
The former Conn Smythe winner is 33 but still wants to compete, as shown by his desire to leave the Ducks who have their goalie of the future in Jonas Hiller. Giguère’s short time with the Leafs, playing in just 14 games, was good but not great.He immediately captured the minds of Leaf nation with back to back shutouts in his opening two games, but fell back to earth in the remaining 12 games, posting a less than stellar 5-7-2 record.
There is no doubt that Giguère can play. He is one of the few players to win the Conn Smythe without hoisting the cup, and almost every hockey fan can recall at least one game from that magical playoff run Anaheim made in 2003.
Giguère posted a surprising high .923 save percentage last year in his time in Toronto and although Gustavsson may be the future in Toronto, Giguère should be given at least a shot at the starting job in October.
This time last year the hockey world was abuzz over where a Swedish import goalie, nicknamed The Monster for his imposing frame, would sign.
As we all know, Jonas Gustavsson chose Toronto and after signing a one year contract last year was rewarded with a two year extension last April. When Gustavsson first came to the Leafs, it looked like he would back up troubled tender Vesa Toskala. But when Toskala went from bad to worse, Gustavsson was thrown into a battle for starting goalie.
His opening season was one filled with ups and downs, with big wins like his first career shutout, but also real stinker games like a six goal performance against hated Philadelphia.
Gustavsson also faced heart problems earlier in the season but seems to have put it behind him. Gustavsson faced difficulties, especially early in the season, in adjusting to the North American game, giving up monster rebounds and often getting caught out of position.
After the acquisition of Giguère however, Gustavsson showed a marked improvement, resulting most notably in an eight game winning streak. Whether it was the addition of a veteran presence to help the young Swede, the addition of now captain Dion Phaneuf, or simply a gradual comfort level increase with NHL style hockey, Gustavsson improved as the season went on.
Before Giguère arrived Gustavsson posted a subpar .872 save percentage coupled with a 2.9 goals against. Yet in the 11 games (an admittedly small sample) after the trade deadline, The Monster played to an improved 2.5 goals against and put up a much higher .911 save percentage.
Gustavsson will look to build on his late season success next year and will likely be the favorite to lead the Leafs in net next year.
The goaltender of an NHL team is easily one of, if not the most important players on any professional sports team.
They are more important than a football team’s quarterback, a baseball team’s closer, or a star soccer forward.
Last year none of the Leafs goalies cut it and because of it the Maple Leafs record suffered. Soft goals not only killed team confidence but put the team in holes they couldn’t fight their way out of.
However, the future looks brighter for the Leafs. With a bigger, more bruising defense and a stable of young talented goalies, the Leafs may have finally found their solution to a problem that has haunted them for the last four years.