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Decision On Pogge Looming

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Of course you qualify Justin Pogge.


Right?

Pogge is a restricted free agent and for three years, the Leafs Goalie Of The Future.

It said so everywhere. You might have been excused for believing his first name was Goalie and the rest all sort of fell in line…Of The Future Justin Pogge.

Well, three years of waiting for the future hasn’t resulted in a great deal of progress. Tellingly, Pogge watched the Marlies sixth and it turned out final game of the playoffs from the bench. He gave up just over three goals a game in the post-season. In the regular season, his average was 2.70 and his save percentage was a mediocre .895. He did stone the Manitoba Moose for two games in Winnipeg to lift the Marlies into the post-season. The season before, coach Greg Gilbert passed him over at playoff time for Scott Clemmensen.

Some players actually fare better in the NHL than the American League. So far, Pogge isn’t one of them. He went 1-4-1 with a bloated 4.36 GAA with the Leafs and he wasn’t considered for a meaningful role when Vesa Toskala was lost to season-ending surgery.

All this shouldn’t mean the end for Pogge. He just turned 23. Goalies are notoriously late to mature and Pogge has a great pedigree as the gold-medal winning backstop at the 2006 World Junior Hockey Championship.

Qualifying him is the sensible thing, if the Leafs let him walk they get nothing in return and certainly Pogge retains name recognition if nothing else. He is six-foot-three and very athletic. All the physical skills are in place.

But here’s the thing. Ron Wilson and Brian Burke put little truck on players whose stature is connected mostly to their association with the Maple Leafs. Past general managers saw Nik Antropov as a slowly maturing asset. Remember the Bugs Bunny cartoon with a starving Christopher Columbus who looks at Bugs and sees a rabbit dinner. Burke looked at Antropov and saw a second-round draft choice.

Leaf nation saw a lovely story in Dominic Moore. Burke saw a very handy third-liner whose scoring totals were enhanced by a disproportionately heavy amount of ice time.

Management’s criteria is simple enough: what has a player done other than wear a Maple Leaf?

This, by the way, is precisely why you bring strong-minded people from outside your organization. If a GM hasn’t drafted a player, he is less likely to alibi for him. He has less invested. The longer you bank on a player’s potential, the chancier the investment but, paradoxically, the more compelling the urge becomes to keep him. It’s like spending money on a bad car. After a while, you’ve spent too much to do the right thing.

And so we come back to Justin Pogge and wonder if he is another example of the culture of entitlement against which Wilson has so often railed.

Twenty-one-year old James Reimer has performed well in the East Coast League. He is two years younger than Pogge and has played his way up from the East Coast League. He is six-foot-two with sound mechanics and a discernable toughness. He will fight for games with the Marlies.

The Leafs are hopeful of signing Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson after Sweden is done at the World Championships. Just 24, Gustavsson would challenge the 31-year-old Toskala. He’s a big-shot in Sweden.

Suddenly the Leafs goaltending question becomes far more muddled and the route of ascension Pogge has long since been slated for bears some roadblocks.

But you still qualify him. Right?

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