Year of ups and downs

Justin Pogge saved his best for last, finding his goaltending groove late during last season's...

Justin Pogge saved his best for last, finding his goaltending groove late during last season's rookie campaign with the AHL Marlies. (Sun File/Marcel Cretain)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

STRATHROY -- One year you are the future saviour of a storied NHL franchise, the next you're just a recognizable name on a team's depth chart.

Welcome to the topsy-turvey world of Justin Pogge.

Just a year ago, Pogge arrived in Toronto as a national hero neatly wrapped in the Canadian flag.

He had backstopped Canada to a world junior title, earned honours as the top goalie in the Canadian Hockey League and was being counted on to be the Leafs' goaltending-star-in-waiting, so much so that highly coveted prospect Tuuka Rask was shipped to the Boston Bruins for Andrew Raycroft.

In the end, maybe all those lofty expectations were unrealistic all along.

"I knew I would not make the NHL in my first year," Pogge said yesterday. "I mean, I still tried my hardest at camp but it would have been stupid to think that."

Pogge broke into a wide grin. If his critics consider his first professional season to be a flop, he does not echo their opinions in the least.

Admittedly, he had more than his share of growing pains in his first taste of professional hockey and Pogge did not win his first home game as a Toronto Marlie until the season was several months old.

While he was at a local movie theatre, brazen thieves stole his sporty new car.

He was loaned to Pat Quinn's Canadian team for the Spengler Cup in Switzerland, where his mishandling of the puck led to the heartbreaking winning goal in the gold-medal game.

"S--t happens," he said. "It was still a great experience."

In the end, Pogge's numbers with the Marlies were not that bad. He finished with 19 victories, a 3.03 goals-against average and .896 save percentage and, most importantly, improved as the season went on.

Obviously not enough to keep him in the constant spotlight anymore, however.

With the opening of training camp just three weeks away, there is scarcely any buzz regarding Pogge when the subject of the Leafs' goaltending situation comes up.

You hear questions about just how good Vesa Toskala will be, which team Raycroft might be traded to, even the role newcomer Scott Clemmensen could play.

Pogge? He seems to be a mere footnote.

Pogge laughs at the theory that his slow start a year ago might have come from overconfidence due to reading too many of his own press clippings from junior.

"I don't read the papers," he said. "Whether good or bad things are written about you, they can fill your head with (crap).

"I learned that when the NHL lockout was on. I had just been traded to the Calgary (Hitmen) and we were a big deal out there.

"I started reading all the stuff and started walking with a bit of a swagger."

Enter Hitmen coach Kelly Kisio, a former NHLer.

"He told me to stop being so full of myself," Pogge recalled. "It really sunk in."

Pogge, Raycroft and Clemmensen are in Strathroy this week to train at the goalie school of Steve McKichan, who moonlights as the Leafs' netminding coach. Pogge, still just 21, is looking forward to working with Clemmensen, who is slated to be his goaltending partner and mentor with the Marlies.

"What I learned last year is not to try to make every save look spectacular," he said.

"It's okay to slow your game down and just let the puck hit you and not to do too much. It was one of the valuable lessons I learned in the AHL, which is a great league.

"My top goal is to make the Leafs this year.

"If that doesn't happen, then I'm aiming for 40 wins with the Marlies.

"I think I can do it."

That doesn't sound so stupid, Justin.

Not in this corner, anyway.


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