Goaltending situation complex

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

To fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's an interesting little conundrum. Who should be the backup to starting goaltender Andrew Raycroft?

But to Leafs general manager John Ferguson, the goaltending issue is fraught with peril, going far beyond the simple matter of finding someone willing to sit on the bench with a towel around his neck for 70 games. It may even decide Ferguson's own fate with the team.

Let's face it, Ferguson has been fairly efficient in assembling a respectable group of forwards and defenceman. But throughout his tenure, his handling of the goaltending situation has created more questions than answers.

Even the question of whether the backup should be Mikael Tellqvist or Jean-Sebastien Aubin is not as simple as it seems.

Based upon performances last season and this training camp, Aubin should be designated as the starter, not a backup.

But office politics play a role in every job, even professional sports jobs, and rare indeed is the coach who has the courage to demote the GM's prime off-season acquisition simply because he hasn't played well enough.

Not that coach Paul Maurice would want to take that tack. Aubin, who played for him last year, is no favourite of his.

But what if Raycroft gets the starting role, then finds himself out of action for a while, as Ed Belfour did last year? What happens if Tellqvist is given a chance to prove his worth and comes up short, only to be replaced by Aubin, who does a superb job? Does that scenario sound familiar?

But this year, there's the added twist of having given up the best young goalie in the world to get Raycroft.

Many hockey professionals don't understand that move. They say that even though there is no certainty when it comes to predicting the future of young goalies, the consensus is that the best two young goalies in the world are Justin Pogge and Tuukka Rask.

The Leafs had both and gave up Rask, judged by most scouts to be the better of the two. The premise was that the Leafs needed a starting goalie and had to pay a high price.

Translation:Ferguson needed a starting goalie in a hurry to cement his status, and the kids are years away.

But there's no guarantee, based upon a two-year career, that Raycroft is a genuine front-line goalie. And if the injury scenario mentioned above unfolds, Aubin may prove that the Leafs had a starter all along.

If the Leafs were that desperate for a starter, they could have signed Martin Gerber, who was a free agent last summer. Not only would they have kept Rask, they would have made life more difficult for the arch-rival Ottawa Senators who wasted no time grabbing Gerber for themselves.

The Leafs' defence is that Gerber costs more. Yes he does. But Ferguson gave both Tellqvist and Aubin one-way contracts at roughly $500,000. Then there's the $1.5 million buyout to Belfour, the residue of a Ferguson contract.

Had all that money not been wasted on goaltenders not playing for the Leafs, Gerber's deal would be easier to swallow.

Consider another scenario. Suppose the Leafs ease the logjam by moving Aubin. Then he plays well in his new home and Raycroft struggles. How secure will Ferguson be then?

Can't you just envision it? Maurice has the Leafs playing great hockey, but they're consistently being beaten as a result of poor goaltending. Even if Aubin is as far away as Vancouver by that time, he'll be able to hear the screams of anguish emanating from Toronto.

And all this hasn't even taken into account the long-range considerations -- the possibility of Rask being the next Martin Brodeur or Patrick Roy.

The Leafs' level of success down the road will be determined in hockey's time-honored manner -- by the goaltending.

If Ferguson made the right moves, he'll be exonerated and praised. But if he ends up being fired, it will almost certainly be his handling of the goaltending that determined his fate.


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