It can't be a lot of fun being Jonas Gustavsson right now.
Things had already been tough lately, even before an embarrassing 7-0 blow out in New York against the Rangers, with the second-year Toronto Maple Leafs netminder appearing nervous and allowing ugly goals in most of his last dozen games.
That said, goaltending in the NHL has become an incredibly complicated position, perhaps the most technically complex one in pro sports, and making sense of just what's gone wrong for Gustavsson isn't easy.
The team in front of him is partially to blame for nights like the one in New York, but there's also more at work here, as a goalie that was pursued by almost every NHL team as a free agent in the spring of 2009 looks so lost many nights and has regressed from how he played last season.
For an outsider's perspective on Gustavsson, I dropped a note to Justin Goldman, who runs an independent goaltender scouting service in Colorado called The Goalie Guild. Goldman has recently been offering on-the-fly breakdowns of NHL goalies and prospects on Twitter that incorporate some of the technical understanding of what's happening in the crease, and his thoughts on Gustavsson are quite interesting.
Based on conversations I've had with others around the league the past couple weeks, a lot of these comments ring true. And Goldman is not the only person spotting these particular issues with the Leafs goaltending situation.
How big of a shift is it for Gustavsson to become a "Francois Allaire style" goalie given he's coming from Sweden in his mid-20s as a late-blooming prospect?
Technically speaking, I do think that Gustavsson does clash a little bit with Allaire's coaching style. I can only speculate on this aspect of his struggles since I live in Colorado and never see them practising or working together, but I do know that Allaire continues to teach the traditional "blocking" and positional butterfly style that made J-S Giguere (and now Jonas Hiller) so successful.
This does "clash" with Gustavsson a little bit because he's a traditional Swedish butterfly goalie: His style relies more on reflexes and reactions to stop the puck. He plays deeper in his crease in order to give himself more time to react to shots and potential deflections. His style was honed and refined in Sweden with the goalie coach Erik Granqvist, who does a great job of coaching many Farjestad goalies, including Cristopher Nihlstorp and some others.
I think because Gustavsson was refined by one coach, then went straight to the NHL and started working with Allaire without any development in the AHL, he has had to manage a difficult transitioning process. Very few goalies will be successful in that manner and there are so many things that simply must be learned in game situations. No practice can ever match the intensity and speed in an NHL game, so he is really having to learn things like rebound control, tracking the puck and positioning the hard way.
Even [Florida Panthers prospect]Jacob Markstrom, who has been touted as a more promising Swedish prospect than Gustavsson, is honing his skills and transitioning to the smaller ice surface and higher-skilled players in the AHL. And it will do him good next season when he probably gets a crack at an NHL job.
How does the pressure of playing in Toronto on a team that struggles to score factor in?
As I'm sure you know, he is playing under heavy expectations from the fans and coaching staff. At the same time, he is also personally a very fierce competitor. Like any goalie, he hates to lose. Because of this, he has a lot of negative body language and feedback when he allows a weak or untimely goal. This further perpetuates his struggles in some situations, as that negativity eats away at his confidence.
I like to see this enthusiasm and energy, but he needs to channel it in a more positive manner. A goalie should never react negatively after allowing a goal; it just distracts them from focusing on the puck and managing their game and movements. This is why you will often see him get scored on in bunches. He tightens up or tenses up after allowing one bad or untimely goal, and that usually leads to the pressure mounting to such a degree that he will allow two or three in succession.
He rarely looks comfortable when games are close or "intense" [something that often happens with the low-scoring Leafs]because he is putting way too much pressure on himself mentally to win games.
From the psychological standpoint of a goaltender, he's playing not to lose instead of simply playing to win. I see a lot of negativity in his body language and demeanour this year.
In terms of style, is there another way Gustavsson could or should be playing right now? If not Allaire's way, what?
One thing that I have learned from a few other successful NHL goalie coaches over the last year is this: A goaltender should always be coached to play as relaxed and comfortable as possible. If a certain style works for them, it is often good for the goalie coach to adjust their teachings to the goalie.
If you look at Nashville's two European goaltenders, they are being allowed to play to their strengths [under coach Mitch Korn] Pekka Rinne isn't being taught to play a positional or "blocking" style because that's not what makes him successful.
If you look at the Stars goalies, Kari Lehtonen is playing that really "reactive" style where his hands control a lot of shots down low and he's pretty scrambly at times. This is what makes Lehtonen feel the most comfortable and it eliminates a lot of mental noise and just allows him to play to his strengths. Andrew Raycroft is playing the hybrid style of positional butterfly that makes him very successful as well. Both goalies on both teams are playing to their strengths and that's why they have been so successful this year.
In that same fashion, if you look at [Leafs prospect]James Reimer, he's clearly the kind of goalie that will have an easier time adjusting or absorbing the teachings of Allaire's blocking style. He's a positionally sound goalie that likes to let pucks come to him. He'll move less to absorb shots and that's what has made him successful since his junior days.
What's the future hold for Gustavsson? Are these temporary issues or long-term ones?
Personally, I think Gustavsson just so happens to be the type of Swedish import that takes longer to transition to the smaller ice surface. Because he didn't have any time to hone or refine his game in the AHL, he has been under intense pressure to win games and evolve at a faster rate than should be expected of him. He's been thrown into the proverbial fire and has suffered some very frustrating losses in the last year. It probably really frustrates him because he clearly has the potential to be an elite NHL goaltender. He just needs more time. If the Leafs will stay patient and positive with him, he can be a full-time starting goalie in the NHL.
Everyone knows he showed tremendous promise after the Olympics last year. And he's capable of being even better than that. But he needs to relax and go back to playing a style that makes him successful. He needs to play to his strengths, not try and mold his style into something he's really not. If the Leafs really want him to do that, they need to put him in the AHL and give him ample playing time so he can refine his style into what Allaire wants. But that's not easy to accomplish in the NHL, especially when he sits on the bench every other game.
If you look at how the Leafs are handling Jussi Rynnas, another raw-skilled prospect, I have to say it's a much better progression path than how they are handling Gustavsson.
I feel bad for Gustavsson because he's a very hard-working goalie. I love his work ethic, his energy, his combination of size, speed and agility. He has all of the traits to be an elite NHL goalie. But he has a lot of pressure on his shoulders right now. And if you look at everything he's had to deal with and process away from the rink (family issues, the whole moving overseas situation), it's just not an easy situation to be in mentally. I think expectations are too high (internally and externally) and his development path has been too rushed for him to truly be successful right now. Yes, he should be done "transitioning" to a smaller ice surface, but every goalie is different and unique. Every goalie has their own blueprint and every goalie should be treated as an unique entity.
All of those problems reveal themselves in the bad rebounds, the untimely goals against, the negative reactions, the frustration, the lack of confidence from his teammates, and sometimes with himself.
All of that being said, it won't take much for him to snap back into a positive situation and continue to evolve. He's still learning with each game that goes by. The tough losses only make him stronger mentally. But the Leafs need to be patient and they need to set him up to be successful. They need to give him some easy starts (very few in the NHL these days) and they need to nurture him a little bit and give him some consistent minutes. If so, I won't be surprised when he goes on a run similar to the one he had post-Olympics last year.