It seems only fitting that, on the weekend the Toronto Maple Leafs head to Vancouver, general manager Brian Burke's struggling hockey team is embroiled in a goalie controversy.
It was with the Canucks, after all, that Burke stood by his man in the crease, Dan Cloutier, after watching his No. 1 from 2001-02 to 2003-04 falter in key games, again and again.
Five years later, the Leafs are waiting on Swedish rookie Jonas (The Monster) Gustavsson to recover from a groin injury and potentially take over the No. 1 role. Vesa Toskala remains in no man's land, rehabbing a minor injury in order to, presumably, sit on the bench in a baseball cap for his $4-million (U.S.) salary.
If Gustavsson falters, Toskala may get another chance, but the likelihood is that Burke begins to pursue other options.
He has learned his lesson.
"When I got to Anaheim, I said never again will I be short on goaltending. Never again," Burke told a Toronto radio station earlier this week. "That's part of the reason to go get The Monster, part of the reason to look at other available opportunities with guys.
"If one of [Gustavsson or Toskala]doesn't emerge as the guy or both of them, if they can't emerge as a tandem, then we're going to have to go look for a goaltender. We can't fix the goaltending situation until we figure out what we have."
In Toskala, what it appears Burke and head coach Ron Wilson have is a previously promising goaltender nearing an early end, a trend that is far from new in the NHL. Aside from Cloutier, whose struggles were most evident in the postseason, recent history is littered with names such as Jim Carey, Roman Turek and Tommy Salo, backstops who, for whatever reason, lost their ability like a pitcher who can no longer throw a strike and faded away.
Toskala's numbers have dipped dramatically since coming to Toronto in the summer of 2007, and while some of that has been attributable to playing with a much weaker team, his statistics have also fallen each consecutive season in blue and white. Toskala had a save percentage of .914 in 99 starts with the San Jose Sharks, well above the league average, but in his first season in Toronto, that dropped to .904. Last season, it was down to .891, and after four games this year, it's slipped all the way to .812.
Meanwhile, the team in front of him appears to have lost its confidence in the soft-spoken Finn.
Craig Button was a pro scout with the Leafs when Toronto GM John Ferguson Jr. traded three draft picks, including a first rounder, to San Jose for Toskala. At that point, he had only been a backup, but Button said the organization felt confident in his abilities.
Now, Button said he can see the parallels with Toskala's struggles and when, as the GM of the Calgary Flames, he acquired Turek in 2001 and gave him a lucrative new deal after a strong start.
A few weeks later, Turek crumpled under the weight of the contract, the Flames sunk in the standings, and Button was eventually fired. Turek went home to the Czech Republic during the NHL lockout and, breaking his contract, never returned.
"With Roman, all the scrutiny, the contract, the expectations were higher," Button said. "And all of a sudden teams are going 'Okay, this is their guy, we've got to find a way to beat him.' "
According to Button, NHL teams have brought the analysis of the position to the point where goalie coaches around the league use video to break down opposition starters and instruct their offensive players how to score on them.
"He didn't have a big body of work for people to break down either," Button said, comparing Turek to Toskala. "Then all of a sudden, people start to find the holes and the weaknesses and he's got to be able to close them down. And some goalies can't."
Toskala's plight in Toronto hasn't gone unnoticed in Finland, one of the top goalie-producing countries in the world. Some seasoned hockey observers there defend his record as a solid yet unspectacular netminder, while others say they always felt he wasn't quite cut out for the NHL like some of his peers.
"Toskala is a great guy, but he can't handle pressure," said one well-connected Finnish hockey insider who asked to remain unidentified. "I believe his NHL career is over, either at the end of the season or much sooner."
Publicly, the Leafs have yet to throw in the towel on Toskala, and Wilson spent yesterday morning on the radio before practice defending his troubled netminder against the local media. Behind the scenes, however, Burke and Wilson have discussed the teams goaltending issue, and Toskala's chances will be numbered if he continues to falter.
Button said that, looking back at his experience, he knows how Burke felt about Cloutier, a goaltender he had invested time and energy in while in Vancouver. Whether he feels the same about Toskala, a goalie he inherited, remains to be seen.
"He believed in Danny Cloutier. He looked at him and he knows he can play," Button said. "I was the same way with Roman Turek. He comes in, he plays, you know who he is as a person. But then they start to struggle, they can't play at the same level, but you still, in your mind, believe that they can get back there. I don't know if you're stuck with them or if you're stuck with the memory of them playing at their best.
"At times, you think 'okay get him out of here.' But at the same time you're going, 'I know he can do it, I've seen him do it.' At what point do you realize he can't do it any more?"Report Typo/Error