It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Fifty games into the 2010-11 season, Brian Burke was supposed to know who his goaltender of the future was going to be. Given the lack of results or lack of experience from his three most talented goaltenders, Burke is still unsure which way to turn.
On the one hand, it would seem beneficial for Burke to turn his back on J.S. Giguere, trading the veteran goaltender to a playoff contender or allowing Giguere to escape Toronto this summer via free agency.
On the other hand, if Giguere leaves, who could possibly step up in his absence?
When Burke brought in Swedish goaltending sensation Jonas Gustavsson, he touted the youngster as “the best goalie not playing in the NHL." Unfortunately for Burke, through 65 career NHL games, Gustavsson has posted a 22-28-11 record with a .890 save percentage and a less than stellar 3.29 goals against average.
Needless to say, despite Burke’s high praise and equally high hopes for Gustavsson, “The Monster” has not evolved into a number-one goaltender, falling well short of expectations in the process.
One could argue that Gustavsson has not been given a proper opportunity to succeed, but with Francois Allaire as his goaltending coach (one of the best in the business) and a long stretch of games having been afforded to him when Giguere went down with an injury, it is widely felt that Gustavsson may have missed his opportunity to grab the starter’s role.
The fact is, with James Riemer emerging as a solid option between the pipes, Gustavsson is looking more and more like the odd man out and might just be sent down to the Leafs’ AHL affiliate (Toronto Marlies) for a conditioning stint.
Reimer, who was little more than an afterthought at the beginning of the season, has posted a 4-3 record to go along with his impressive .933 save percentage and 2.24 goals against average.
While Reimer’s numbers speak to him having a lot of talent and upside, seven games is hardly enough for Burke to hand over the number-one goalie status to Reimer, is it?
And therein lies the problem. Burke would probably like to move on from Giguere, but may not be able to based on the two unknowns that are Gustavsson and Reimer, respectively.
To be fair, Giguere (who recently said he would entertain waiving his no-trade clause) hasn’t exactly endeared himself to management and/or the fans either. Through 24 games Giguere has posted a 10-9-3 record. His .896 save percentage ranks him 35th in the league, while his 2.82 goals against average ranks him 34th.
Needless to say, the team in front of Giguere has had its fair share of issues, but there has been little about Giguere’s season that suggests he can still be the number-one guy.
Let’s not forget, the Anaheim Ducks tried to get Giguere to accept the role of backup when Jonas Hiller emerged. Unwilling to accept his “demotion”, Giguere became available, with Burke picking him up via trade.
The prospect of being asked to be the number-two goaltender in Toronto may have swayed Giguere’s decision to inform Burke that he would be willing to move for the right situation, that and the fact that he may be able to leverage an extension on his contract should he accept a trade.
Giguere’s struggles this season can be partially attributed to his groin injury. The injury and his age (33) suggest that he may be better suited for the number-two role, something Giguere may not be willing to accept.
To be fair, Giguere has never complained about his playing time in Toronto, and by all accounts, looks to be a tremendous mentor to both Gustavsson and Reimer.
Given Giguere’s stellar attitude and willingness to mentor, Burke may very well have a plan to bring the veteran back to Toronto next year.
It is becoming very clear that Burke needs to stall for time, allowing both Gustavsson and Reimer to evolve into starting goalies.
A one-year contract for Giguere would afford Burke and his young goalies some valuable breathing room. That is if Burke can sign Giguere on the cheap.
Giguere’s current contract has him carrying a cap hit of $6 million. The salary landscape for goaltenders has changed dramatically over the past 3-4 years, with many general managers making it a priority to sign their puck stoppers to low salaries.
At 33 years old, Giguere is on the decline. When we consider his age, performance and recent injury history, Giguere would be lucky to get a contract in the $3 million range. More likely, Giguere will probably garner an offer in the $2 million range on a one-year deal, with an option year possibly being added, but not likely.
On the surface it may seem like another step back for Burke to bring Giguere back into the fold, but if Gustavsson and Reimer fail, the Maple Leafs have nobody to fall back on, which could be disastrous to the Buds' playoff hopes for the 2011-12 season (insert jokes here).
Sure, both Gustavsson and Reimer need to play, but if they fail to develop your entire season will be flushed down the toilet, a risk that Burke is not likely to take.
There are other options. Tomas Vokoun (34), Ilya Bryzgalov (30), Craig Anderson (29) and Jimmy Howard (26) headline a decent group of potential unrestricted free agent goaltenders this summer, but it remains to be seen if any of them will become available or if they would be willing to sign with the Blue and White.
Many may point to the recent NHL player’s poll which had 318 players voting the Maple Leafs (who received five percent of the votes) as the fifth-least likely place they would like to play as an indication that Burke will struggle to sign potential free agents.
Here’s a little reality on that from one of my readers: Do you know what 5% of 318 is… That’s 16 players out of 318 that don’t want to play for Toronto… Oh the horror!!!!
Fact is, Toronto is still a preferred destination, so don’t expect Burke to be shaking in his boots over it! The poll will not be a factor for UFAs, nor should it be.
At the end of the day, Burke knows what he is getting in Giguere, and while it’s not all good, Giguere’s calm demeanor, experience, abilities, ease with the media and willingness to tutor the youngsters may be enough to earn him a one-year deal.
Giguere has been a good soldier here in Toronto. Maybe, just maybe, Burke believes he has one more battle left in him?
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Until next time,