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Maple Leafs Watch: Working Pogge into the lineup

The Maple Leafs are doing right by Justin Pogge. Sure, the early returns may be ugly, but if the young goaltender is to mature into an everyday starter, there must be a process to get him there.

True, the current situation – which sees Pogge jettisoned between the Buds and the Marlies – is unorthodox. But with the Leafs out of playoff contention, this is the time to fool around for the future. And Pogge still has much to learn.

In Tuesday’s loss to the Buffalo Sabres, Pogge was essentially beaten by NHL speed due to an American League mindset. A quick turnover by John Mitchell in the defensive zone led to a speedy wrister by new Leaf-killer Drew Stafford. Maybe next year, Pogge makes the save. The majority of current NHL goaltenders certainly would have.

On Buffalo’s second goal (which echoed in the “here we go again” theme of the night), a bang-bang play went cross-crease to Dan Paille and left Pogge playing catch-up, albeit too late to make the stop.

Now the glass-half-full crowd will point out that Pogge settled down quite nicely after the first period, but that ignores the fact the score was already 3-0. With Ryan Miller playing excellent in net for Buffalo, there was no real need for the Sabres to keep pouring it on; they knew the Leafs would be hard-pressed to get one goal, let alone several.

No, the value in Pogge’s call-up this time around is in repetitions. As coach Ron Wilson has pointed out, this recent promotion will be an extended one; not just one game up, one game down. Pogge will now face NHL-caliber shots in practices, as well as games. He will watch the habits of established veterans Vesa Toskala and Curtis Joseph, instead of his battery partner with the Marlies, the capable, but NHL-poor Adam Munro.

Ironically, the defense Pogge has played for with the Marlies is just as porous and giving as their NHL big brothers, so he can’t expect things to get any easier now that he’s in The Show.

It’s not difficult to see the evolution of the Leafs’ rebuilding process in terms of netminders. Pogge is essentially getting looks at the expense of Joseph, a fan favorite who is nonetheless playing his last season in Toronto, if not the NHL. In even the quickest of franchise comebacks, the Buds can’t expect next year’s roster to do more than challenge for a playoff spot, if that. A tandem of Toskala and Pogge, with Toskala playing, say, 60 of 82 games, sets the table for a 2010-11 season where Pogge takes his shot at No. 1.

Granted, this is contingent on Pogge earning that distinction. As Carey Price has found out in Montreal this season, the NHL ain’t as easy as it may seem early on. Every team that sees Pogge will know his tendencies by the next time they come to town.

The golden boy title placed upon the youngster was only exacerbated by the unforgivable Tuukka Rask/Andrew Raycroft trade a few years ago and the lack of depth in the organization. James Reimer is getting his shot with the Marlies right now after serving his time with a bad Reading Royals team in the ECHL and Munro is right where he should be in the AHL.

Unless the Leafs plan on parachuting in a veteran in the future, this is Pogge’s time to learn the ropes and begin his own legacy.

This article also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect-watch feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.

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