Word has it that The Monster isn’t exactly crazy about his nickname.
Swedish friends from around the league have said as much, if only quietly, remarking how Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Jonas Gustavsson might be the least monstrous man in the NHL.
Gustavsson himself won’t let on that that’s the case, allowing only that he doesn’t go around introducing himself as Mr. Monster.
“I don’t call myself that,” he said. “But I don’t have a problem with it. ... I do hear that a lot, ‘Oh you don’t look like a monster.’”
No, he doesn’t. And for the most part in his NHL career, the 27-year-old hasn’t played like one either, as he struggled through health problems and inconsistency after being billed as the best goaltender not in the league when he arrived in Toronto in 2009.
Gustavsson has not had it easy over the past few years. His mother died at a time when NHL teams were calling and then an irregular heartbeat forced him to have three invasive ablation procedures in the span of a year and a half.
The low point on the ice came late last season, when he struggled in goal and had another health setback in February. Gustavsson didn’t even make an appearance with the Leafs over the final 37 games of the season, but the team stuck with him.
When he then posted an .878 save percentage in his first nine games this season, his time in the NHL appeared to be close to an end.
The Leafs began a quiet search for other options in goal, as projected No. 1 James Reimer nursed a concussion and third-stringer Ben Scrivens took over.
But just when things looked bleak for Gustavsson, a funny thing happened.
He began to win, with a 40 save performance over the Washington Capitals on Nov. 19 kick-starting his best stretch of play yet in the NHL.
Even in the organization, few saw this coming, but Gustavsson has since posted a .922 save percentage and won eight of his past 10 starts, taking over the No. 1 role heading into Toronto’s meeting with the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday.
One person who always believed in Gustavsson was close friend and teammate Carl Gunnarsson, a fellow Swede who had faced him back home and witnessed how dominant The Monster can be.
“That year, he was outstanding,” Gunnarsson said. “There was no other way for him to go than the NHL.”
Gunnarsson added he admires how Gustavsson has dealt with all the adversity – and criticism – the past 2 1/2 years since coming to Toronto.
“What he’s really good at is doing his own thing,” Gunnarsson said. “He never listens to anyone. People have been giving him a hard time for a while now, but he just doesn’t listen. He comes down to the rink, and he does his best every day. Media especially [are hard on him] asking him how that play felt, to have five [goals]behind you – that’s tough. But he’s a pro about it. He doesn’t really care. I admire that about him. It’s really hard [to do]”
Gustavsson had an odd summer for a European NHL player, as he spent essentially the entire off-season in Toronto working out with strength coach Anthony Belza.
Even when local players were long gone and at the lake, Gustavsson could often be seen hanging out at the rink, mostly on his own.
The reason he stayed in Canada wasn’t to train with his teammates, however, but because his girlfriend, Emilie, has a fear of flying and didn’t want to travel home to Sweden. (She spent the summer months taking courses and learning to fly small planes as a way to overcome the phobia.)
Gustavsson’s extra time in the city has paid off, both with a greater comfort level in his NHL home and in getting to 200 pounds on his always lean 6-foot-3 frame.
After practice on Monday, Gustavsson took time to reflect on his past few years, answering questions about his play, his health and, most poignantly, his parents’ death when he was still a young man. (His father predeceased his mother.)
“You’ve got to be more independent,” he said. “That’s something I learned quick. Maybe that’s something that helps me in hockey, too? I know there’s other things in life. There’s tougher losses than one game. If you can come back from that, you can come back from a lost game.”
Gustavsson seems to realize that his recent run of six weeks of strong play doesn’t really make a career. He expects there will be more bumps in the road.
Quiet and calm, he is, in many ways, the personification of the typical goalie mantra of never getting too high or too low, no matter the circumstances.
But for first time in the NHL, Gustavsson is living up his nickname, a moniker he picked up from a Swedish coach because of his height and one he knows he’s stuck with, for better or worse.
“It was weird the first few times that people said it,” he said. “Right now, it feels like it almost became part of me. Whether you like it or not, that’s how it is.”