Since joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brian Burke has worked feverishly to distance the club from the atmosphere of mediocrity which pervaded during the years of mismanagement that came before.
While upgrading the playing staff and reducing the age demographic of the locker room are the two most apparent hallmarks Burke has placed upon the Leafs, his backstage upgrading of the administrative, coaching, scouting and medical departments have the potential to leave considerably longer legacies.
After all the right combination of the above are what set good organizations apart from great ones.
Subsequent additions such as Dave Nonis, Dave Poulin, Steve Kaspar, Rob Cowie, Andy Playter, Marty Dudgeon and Andy Belza are all likely to play key roles in the evolution of the club and its players in the years to come and the exhaustive list (especially in the amateur scouting department), shows just how extensively Burke has purged the system.
Aside from his front office hires, perhaps Burke’s most significant coup was wrestling Francois Allaire from his former employers in Anaheim and naming him the Leafs goaltending consultant.
Amid a myriad of flaws, the Leafs weakness in net has been an overbearing Achilles heel for the best part of a decade and the addition of Allaire in June 2009 illustrated Burke’s dedication to building from the net out. A model he further proved committed to when he added Swedish phenom Jonas Gustavsson to the Leafs after a lengthy courtship that concluded, without coincidence, a mere month after Allaire was named to the coaching staff.
Small wonder Gustavsson jumped at the chance to work under the tutelage of Allaire. While few goaltending coaches come as indomitable as the Quebecois, fewer still come with his reputation. As the architect who shaped lanky rookie Patrick Roy’s raw talents into a Hall of Fame career, Allaire is a coach who demands respect and never was this more apparent than when Vesa Toskala failed to show it.
A throwback to the era of JFJ and a detrimental egotist to boot, Toskala’s inability to work with Allaire hammered the final nail in his wretched Toronto career and probably the last chance to redeem his status as a legitimate NHL number one.
Yep, it’s a case of checking your ego at the door if you want to work with Allaire. For all his fieriness on the ice, Roy was an attentive pupil in Allaire’s class and by-all-accounts; Gustavsson is proving an equally dedicated student.
But the exit of Toskala also brought another name into The Monster’s developmental curve, one whose influence could prove invaluable in a crucial sophomore year for Gustavsson.
Salary-dumped in the trade that rid the Leafs of Toskala, J-S Giguere is a player who attributes his career successes, including a Stanley Cup, to the influence of Allaire and contrary to Toskala, one who has nothing but respect for Allaire’s ability to not only impart his wisdom to developing goalies, but also reviving the careers of jaded veterans.
Of course, as any good coach will tell you, sentiment is best left for retirement and Allaire was quick to outline the terms of his reunion with Giguere.
Speaking the day after the trade Allaire said:
“He’s not just coming here to play goal, He’s coming here as a role model, to Jonas (Gustavsson), to James Reimer, to all our goalies. He’s a guy our young players can (aspire) to, to see what it takes to make the NHL, on and off the ice.”
Call it a job description; as a former Conn Smythe winner Giguere is a goalie who still feels he has what it takes to be a number one somewhere in the NHL, but he also knows how to work with Allaire and with last months exit of goaltending coach Corey Hirsch to St. Louis, Giguere will be increasingly relied upon as an locker room extension for Allaire.
And could there be a better choice?
Considering the Leafs are on the hook for the final $7 million instalment of the four year $24 million deal penned by Burke in Anaheim, many see the Montreal native as an anchor to this summer’s spending ambitions while few expect he will be a Leaf upon next seasons conclusion.
The latter assumption seems a fair appraisal. With Gustavsson hoping to cement himself as a bona-fide NHL starter and the Marlies looking to host a battle royale in audition for Gustavsson’s backup circa 2011-12, the depth chart of Gustavsson, Rynaas, Reimer and Scrivens looks flusher than the Leafs have perhaps ever been in net. As a consequence the services of Giguere (and his wage expectations) will likely be superfluous pending an explosion of youthful puckstoppers this year.
Subsequently a safety net, albeit an expensive one, Giguere should prove a tremendous upgrade over the corrosive play of Toskala.
Indeed transcending corrosive, to backtrack on the contemptible era of Giguere’s trade-mate; Toskala’s abysmal performances provided a thorn in the side of Gustavsson’s development last season. Souring the atmosphere and stinking up the blue paint, Toskala did little to lighten the workload for the then-rookie. Subsequently falling out with Allaire, Toskala provided an increasingly disruptive backdrop amid a season of challenges for the 25 year old Gustavsson whose process of adapting to North American hockey coincided with the worst start to a regular season in Leafs history. An onerous distinction made possible by the fellow Scandinavian he was splitting ice time with.
In such hindsight, the $3 million price increase between Giguere and Toskala is small beans considering the former comes with a reputation of calmness and has the potential to fulfill a mentoring role Vesa Toskala could never come close to assuming.
Giguere can also play a bit too; which will come as a relief to those tired of watching Gustavsson mop up games long-lost last fall.
Suiting up for 15 contests in the blue and white after the trade, Giguere posted a 6-7-2 record with a team leading 2.49 GAA and an impressive .916 save percentage. While his superior numbers were the product of playing behind a Leafs defence and PK much improved over what Gustavsson had endured, the former deposed Ducks starter showed he could still get the job done.
Of course, few feel Giguere will amount to anymore than training wheels in the early part of next season, timesharing the Leafs net until the organization sees fit to let The Monster run with it. Entering into a developmental year with only the faintest glimmer of playoff aspirations, the Leafs can swallow some bad play from the sophomore Gustavsson while having Giguere to steady the ship if the Buds have a shot at the post season.
It’s a healthy situation for Gustavsson and Giguere and one both will be looking to capitalize on. Gustavsson will benefit from having genuine proven competition. Meanwhile Giguere can play mediator to Allaire, advisor to Gustavsson and shop himself behind a theoretically settled Leafs defence as a capable veteran.
With the dressing room trending younger Giguere may be one of only 3 or 4 players north of 30 years old next season and while he still feels he can be a number one, he is unlikely to let personal ambitions get in the way of helping Burke and Allaire develop the next crop of Leafs goaltenders, as well as schooling a youthful group of forwards on the nuances of distracting his league contemporises.
Subsequently Giguere is providing intangibles for which there is no price tag. On such a young team, Burke couldn’t have acquired a more trusted and classy veteran asset. While Giguere’s time with the Leafs maybe limited too little over a year depending on the Leafs standing come the trade deadline, his experience has the potential to be a tremendous foundation for both Gustavsson and the Baby Buds.
At a $6 million cap hit, one can point at Giguere as an overpriced Huet or Theodore, but in actuality with a mere season left before he enters free agency, Jiggy could prove one of Burke’s shrewdest on-ice investments.
A role model to root for, even if he leaves most of his legacy in the hands of The Monster.
Originally written for the Maple Leafs Hot Stove