TORONTO – Stretching out to six feet, five inches, Jussi Rynnas is a long and wiry presence. But the third-year Marlies goaltender is anxious to impose a more commanding presence in the net, a facet of his game engineered in concert with the organization's new goalie coach Rick St. Croix.
"Me and Rick think it maybe challenges a little bit more the [opponent] and makes us a little bit more bigger," said Rynnas, demonstrating the achieved effect by raising his shoulders and arms higher than they'd normally sit.
The 24-year-old is one-third of the goaltending stable with the Marlies, a flock that includes presumed preseason number one Ben Scrivens and a fleeting riser within the organization, 23-year-old Mark Owuya. Of the trio, it's Rynnas, a free agent signing from Finland, who's raced out to impressive early reviews, posting three wins in four starts with a hearty .938 save percentage. Following a shutout in his debut this season, he declared without malice a singular goal of claiming the top job over his equally qualified counterparts. So far, he's charting such a course.
The three-goalie entanglement is neither ideal nor effective for development – the weekend-themed AHL schedule makes playing time potentially sparse – but a reality forced by the ongoing NHL lockout and lacking ECHL affiliate for the Leafs organization. Perhaps the only desirable effect the quandary has had is to raise the bar of competition in the Toronto crease. "You know if you had a bad day there's always two guys taking your spot right away," said Rynnas, who has two shutouts already this season. "Of course, it's not the best situation, but it's pushing you to keep you pretty sharp all the time because every practice is almost like tryouts. You have to be really sharp every single day."
Nicknamed "the bus" by Leafs president and GM Brian Burke upon his landing in Toronto – a distinction his teammates were unaware of – Rynnas had inconsistent results as a sophomore in North America last season, bouncing between the American League and East Coast League with the Marlies' former affiliate in Reading. With late-season injuries at the NHL level, Rynnas also saw unexpected action in two games with the Leafs, yielding seven goals in a last-minute debut that saw expected starter Jonas Gustavsson felled by injury in the pre-game warmup.
The organizational pecking order beyond annointed Leafs number one James Reimer has muddled somewhat early in the Marlies season. Scrivens was number two with a bullet before the year started, a legitimate dark-horse to steal starts from Reimer whenever the NHL work stoppage finally did lift. The 26-year-old has stumbled out of the gate however – he's allowed three goals or more in five of seven starts – clouding the depth chart while opening up further opportunity to Rynnas and Owuya with the former breaking out in front. "Of course I want to play more," said Rynnas, second to Scrivens with four starts, "but I get a couple wins and right now I feel pretty good for my game so I just try to keep [going] the same way."
Now the former Leaf goaltending coach, Francois Allaire, was very much a part of the decision that saw Rynnas sign with the organization in the spring of 2010. Well known for his work and affinity for big goaltenders like Rynnas, the three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach left the Leafs unceremoniously this past summer, replaced by St. Croix, who had coached Ed Belfour to a Stanley Cup in Dallas. "I like him really much," said Rynnas of the Kenora, Ontario native. "He's [a] pretty easy-going guy. He has some new ideas too. I think we have really good chemistry with Rick. He's helping me improve my game…so I'm pretty happy with Rick right now."
The two goalie coaches are a contrast in approach.
Allaire "had his own style" and aimed to mold his goalies around that prototype, whereas "Rick is more like whatever you feel like guy". With long legs for example, Rynnas often struggled to hug the posts in frozen form as Allaire required, a decree that has now fallen by the wayside under St. Croix. He's encouraged instead a return to instincts, whatever formula necessary to make the save.
"Maybe Rick believes little bit more you can play what you feel like," said Rynnas.
While he works closely with St. Croix, Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins does not have a "set of rules" to manage playing time for Rynnas and the other two goaltenders, instead "going with what I see and with my gut and with our schedule". Pedigree won't play much of a factor. Scrivens led the Marlies to an appearance in the Calder Cup final last spring, but has faltered early on and according to Eakins recently is "officially in a fight for the net".
Rynnas has an early and very slight lead, well aware of how quickly that dynamic can shift. "It's a big challenge in the mental side too," he noted of the unorthodox three-goaltender system. "There's going to be times when you're not going to get games in a couple weeks and you have to still be ready [with] the next chance. When you get a chance you can't be [frustrated] and let easy goals [in], you have to be sharp all the time.
"There's no day off."