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A Learning Experience For Young Marlies

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Pogge is the official face of The Conundrum.

Pogge, by far the brightest goaltending prospect the Toronto Maple Leafs own, hasn’t started any of the 14 games the Marlies have played in a riotously fun playoff run.

Having finished off the Syracuse Crunch in seven games, the Marlies are cooled out waiting for the winner of tonight’s Rockford Ice Hogs-Chicago Wolves game. If the Ice Hogs win – and isn’t that a fine beginning for a sentence- they would travel to Toronto to open the series later this week. If the Wolves prevail, the third round starts this weekend in the Windy City.

All this winning is good news for hockey fans in Toronto. Bereft of the advance and group sales that usually puts the fannies in the seats, the Marlies are dealing with a mostly walk-up crowd that swelled to 4,753, up 2,000 between Game 5 and Game 7.

For a franchise aiming to become a fixture since it set up shop at the Ricoh Coliseum three year ago, this has been a fine spring.

Which brings us back to the conundrum.

The Marlies are in the business of development. Both those words carry a vast amount of import.

Many an eyebrow was raised when Marlies coach Greg Gilbert stuck with goalie Scott Clemmensen, especially after the veteran looked spotty in Game 2 of the opening round against San Antonio.

Clemmensen is a 30-year-old with 28 NHL games to his credit. He has been terrific but if the function of the Marlies is to make NHL players game ready, does it follow that Pogge isn’t seeing meaningful action?

In other words, is the business side of the equation overwhelming the development side?

Here’s the answer: I have absolutely no idea.

It is impossible to know. I can tell you this, no one could be more acutely aware of Justin Pogge’s readiness for the post-season more than Gilbert. And it’s Gilbert who will be feeding Pogge ample playing time next season if Clemmensen, as projected, finds work backing up Vesa Toskala.

And what doesn’t get asked is what happens if Pogge did for the Marlies what Carey Price did for the Montreal Canadiens…against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Canadiens managed to service both the business and the development end brilliantly when they handed the reins to Price last season while the young goalie was tending goal for the Hamilton Bulldogs. Price led team to a Calder Cup triumph and this season, Canadiens management installed Price as the go-to-goalie for the playoffs.

Pogge is 22, 16 months older than Price and there would have been plenty of comfort in going with Pogge. Even if Pogge failed, a first or second round playoff exit could be written off as a learning experience.

But what about everyone else’s learning experience?  Paroled from the press box, where he spent Games 3 and 4, Brent Aubin scored twice in the Marlies 3-2 series clincher. Aubin has shed the weight of a 10-goal regular season and dramatically accelerated his development.

Jiri Tlusty is grinding his way through the playoffs. Tlusty is not enjoying much statistical success, he has two goals and seven points in 14 games, but he is learning first-hand about the demands of the post-season.

Meanwhile, John Mitchell, a prospect who has played 203 regular season games in the AHL, is distinguishing himself. The 23-year-old Mitchell has proven himself a sound-two way player with a real offensive upside. He owns eight post-season goals including the series winner against Syracuse.

An organization, any organization, owes its employees, not just its elite employees, the chance to move up or maybe move out. Three playoff rounds means more opportunity for players who may or may not have a future with the Maple Leafs, Kris Newbury, Alex Foster, Ben Ondrus, Jay Harrison, Jaime Sifers, Andy Wozniewski, to sharpen their resumes or nudge their way onto the Leafs roster.

In an idea world, 23-year-old Kyle Rogers, 20-year-old Jiri Tlusty and Dale Mitchell, just out of junior, would be playing in all situations with Pogge holding fort in goal. But that combination would leave an empty Ricoh Coliseum and I think everyone likes the place better with ice and people.
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