"I’d like to use Jonas more," [Wilson] said. "But it’s tough with the schedule the way it is. I’m not going to kill the poor guy." - Ron Wilson
Those two quotes reveal a lot about what Brian Burke, Dave Nonis and the rest of the Leafs braintrust are thinking about right now. They're not naming Gustavsson the starter because of his excellent play - Gustavsson's been average if we're being kind - they're naming him the starter in advance of contract negotiations.
At this point the Leafs aren't sure what they have in Gustavsson. He was brought in as an SEL phenom and his success in Europe hasn't translated to success in the NHL. The Monster is head and shoulders above Vesa Toskala but honestly who isn't? If that's our measuring stick "so and so is better than [worst player in the league]" then don't bother watching hockey anymore.
We all know the excuses and the stories, and this isn't intended to be a hatchet job on Gustavsson I like him as a personality and think he's a work in progress, but the reality of the situation is that as of this morning Gustavsson sits 33rd in the league with a .901 save percentage.
We know Gustavsson would take time to adjust to the smaller NHL rink but that should have disappeared by now. The Leafs PK makes Jonas look bad (he's 45th in shorthanded SV%) but even ignoring that Gustavsson is 52nd in the NHL in even strength save percentage.
So why is Gustavsson being named the starter? I don't think it has to do with his play as much as his upcoming contract negotiation. The Leafs are starting Gustavsson to see what they have. In the comment mf37 said Gustavsson's camp is looking for $3.5M a year. Whether the claim is true or not isn't terribly important; it sets up the thought experiment which is the basis of this article.
If Gustavsson asks for $3.5M what happens? According to this year's RFA compensation schedule another team offering Gustavsson that much would net the Leafs a first and a third round pick. Depending on term and where the draft pick is it's probably a no brainer to let Gustavsson walk in that case.
If another team offers Gustavsson around $3M, the Leafs would only get a 2nd round pick back. Assuming you'd scoff at the idea of letting him go for a 2nd, how long would you sign Gustavsson for $3M for? Two years? Five years? On a short deal if he keeps playing how he's playing this year you leave him on the bench and move on, but if he starts playing well he'll need a raise sooner.
But where are Gustavsson's comparables? Mathieu Garon is much older than Gustavsson but has a better save percentage and signed as a UFA for $1.2M. Typically we'd expect to see a UFA grab more money than an RFA due to the aforementioned RFA compensation, but Gustavsson's youth probably holds more value than Garon. I think those balance out.
I'd say a fair offer at this point for Gustavsson would be a shorter term deal, 2-3 years at between $1.5M and $1.75M. That's a decent raise that's probably more than he'd get in arbitration at this rate and gives him a chance to prove that he's worth more money to a club right around the time he's 28.
The idea that Gustavsson's contract will be inflated because the Leafs have no one else in the system should be ignored. If Gustavsson's not the guy then it doesn't matter who's in the system the Leafs are going to lose with or without him. A short second contract gives him the opportunity to prove that he is "the guy".
If you were curious why the Leafs were so vocal about Gustavsson suddenly being the starter despite his fairly forgettable play lately wonder no more. The Leafs need to find out what they've got in Gustavsson in a hurry and I don't envy having to make Burke's upcoming decision.