By Jonas Siegel Jul 12, 2020
Curtis Joseph allowed four goals on only nine shots, ending his night in Buffalo in March, 2009.
In his place? Justin Pogge, the one-time Maple Leafs goalie of the future, but now a young man on uneven ground in the organization. A few weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, Pogge stopped all but one of the 15 shots that came his way in relief.
On the bus ride home to Toronto he felt good, finally, about his prospects.
The Leafs were hosting the Bruins the next day at Air Canada Centre. But it wasn’t until after the morning skate, at the pregame meal, that head coach Ron Wilson told Pogge he would be starting in goal.
“Poggs, you’re in tonight,” Wilson said. “Don’t fuck it up.”
After the fifth Boston goal, Wilson called a timeout.
Just over a minute later, the Bruins scored again. This time the coach pulled his goalie.
Pogge never played another second for the Leafs. That frustrating, embarrassing loss to the Bruins was his seventh and final game in the NHL.
For someone who played so few games in the organization, Pogge’s name remains instantly recognizable to fans of the Leafs.
That’s almost entirely because of the infamous June 2006 trade that saw Tuukka Rask — instead of Pogge — dealt for Andrew Raycroft. While Rask has ascended to the highest peaks of the NHL – winning a Stanley Cup and Vezina Trophy with the Boston Bruins – Raycroft flamed out in Toronto.
Years later, Pogge is still coming to terms with the aftermath of the trade, how the Leafs handled his development, and why he remains a figure of derision in Leafs Nation.
After all, he wasn’t the one who dealt Rask.
“I got to see it firsthand – he’s a helluva goalie,” Pogge said of Rask during a nearly hour-long interview recently with The Athletic. “The only thing that’s annoying is that it still gets brought up. I could search Twitter right now and there’s someone probably that said it like a week ago!”
“I was not in the trade!” he exclaims. “Like, there’s no correlation between me and Rask other than we were prospects at the same time. We were drafted a year apart.”
Yet they remain connected for many, all these years later.
By the summer of 2006, the Leafs were ready to turn the page on 41-year-old starter Ed Belfour. The “Eagle” had sunk from Vezina Trophy candidate in the season before the 2004-05 lockout to subpar the season after.
General manager John Ferguson Jr. was seeking a replacement.
According to reports in the Toronto Star at the time, the Leafs GM took swings but missed on both Evgeni Nabokov and Roberto Luongo. And while the Leafs were reportedly interested in Marc Denis, a day after Luongo went to Vancouver, Ferguson settled on Raycroft, the former Calder Trophy winner turned sideways.
He gave up Rask to get him.
Pogge didn’t think the deal had much to do with him at the time. He had only just turned 20 and finished a successful junior career. But because the organization had so clearly bet on him over Rask, Pogge became the next one in Toronto -- the next great goalie to potentially follow Belfour, Joseph and Felix Potvin in the Leafs crease.
Ferguson described Pogge at the time as a “real asset” and “future NHL goalie.”
But why did they give up on Rask? Like many Leafs fans, Pogge still doesn’t get it.
“Would I have traded him? Well probably not,” Pogge says now, chuckling. “(But) for me to get thrown in there — they always say, ‘Well, we had Justin Pogge as the guy coming up’ — but if they wanted two guys to compete, they could’ve had us both playing at the same time. Not signing journeyman goalies in the meantime.”
Two years earlier, Pogge had been the Leafs first selection at the 2004 draft in Raleigh, N.C.
Toronto had traded their first and second round picks in separate Cup-chasing deals for Brian Leetch and Glen Wesley. That meant Pogge, at 90th overall, emerged as the Leafs big prize that June – and a surprising one at that. As Barry Trapp, then-director of amateur scouting, described it in the Star afterward, Pogge “kind of came out of nowhere, as far as people knowing him.”
A small-town kid, Pogge had swiped the No. 1 job of the WHL’s Prince George Cougars from Todd Ford, another Leafs prospect, during the 2003-04 season, his first in the WHL. The Leafs picked Rask in the first round a year later.
Pogge turned on the jets from there. He won CHL goalie of the year for the 2005-06 season and emerged as a household name across the country after leading Team Canada to gold at the world junior championships in B.C. with three shutouts. (Rask wasn’t too bad himself, thriving as an 18-year-old in Finland’s top pro league.)
Ferguson decided to dangle both his goalies of the future to nab one for the present. A year and a half after the disastrous trade, in January of 2008, after the Raycroft experiment failed and the Vesa Toskala make-up trade that followed wasn’t leading to better results, Ferguson was fired as GM.
What went wrong with the LeafsBy 2008, Pogge’s stock with the organization had dropped — although that wasn’t entirely of his own doing.
With journeymen like Jaime Sifers, David Cloutier and Chris Harrington playing in front of him, Pogge was stuffed into the net 48 times as a rookie for a bad Marlies team during the 2006-07 season. He was 20 and, perhaps predictably, struggled to keep his head above water with a save percentage below .900.
That off-season — almost a year to the day after the failed swing on Raycroft — Ferguson sent first and second-round picks to San Jose for Toskala.
The Finn became the Leafs No. 1 during the 2007-08 season while Pogge shared the Marlies crease with veteran Scott Clemmensen. He put up a respectable .908 save percentage, which topped future NHL starters like Jimmy Howard, Corey Crawford and Devan Dubnyk, and even Rask playing in Providence. But with Toskala, and Joseph surfacing once more in Toronto as his backup, Pogge arrived at training camp in the fall of 2008 knowing he had no shot to crack the Leafs.
“Who are you gonna take out?” Pogge wondered, “a future Hall of Famer (or) a Finnish guy that’s hot?”
Toskala bombed, however. By late December, Pogge was called up. He flew into Atlanta, home to one of the league’s worst teams, and made his NHL debut. He stopped 19 of 21 shots for his first – and ultimately only – NHL win.
It was another month before he got a second crack with the Leafs. Brian Burke had by then replaced interim-boss Cliff Fletcher as Leafs GM. They called Pogge up for a game in Minnesota via a flight from Winnipeg.
“And I was sicker than a dog that game,” Pogge says. “But I wasn’t gonna say I’m sick.”
He laughs. “Yeah, I played and I got my ass kicked.”
The Wild tagged the then-22-year-old rookie for six goals.
Playing behind one of the leakiest NHL teams, Pogge got hit hard again in his next two Leafs starts. He then performed respectably (31 saves on 34 shots) in a shootout loss to Columbus on Feb. 19, 2009.
Soon after, with the Leafs season in ruins, Toskala was shut down to season-ending surgery. But instead of recalling Pogge to play alongside Joseph, Burke claimed a struggling 34-year-old Martin Gerber off waivers from Ottawa.
Pogge was incredulous. The Leafs were cooked that year anyway. Why not hand him the reins instead?
“If you’re gonna rebuild, you rebuild, you know? You let your kids play and you try to gain experience that way,” Pogge says now. “They went out and bought players and tried to squeak into the playoffs. That’s part of the reason why there’s been a drought and things needed to change there.”
Not only did Gerber win six times in 12 starts to worsen the Leafs draft position in 2009, he was also suspended three games for pushing referee Mike Leggo and firing a puck in his direction.
That opened the door for Pogge. And that’s when Wilson dropped him into the lineup at the last minute against the Bruins, and things went sideways, for the last time.
While Pogge has fond memories of former Leafs coaches Pat Quinn and Paul Maurice, he was no fan of Wilson.
“He actually told me when he was sending me down that if I was a defenceman I would’ve been on the team,” Pogge says. “He liked my character.”
“Should I try and play defence?” Pogge mused.
Over his five years with the organization, Pogge often felt like he had the pressure and expectations of a first-round pick while being treated more like the third-round pick he actually was.
He would get the odd exhibition game at training camp, but then it was right back to the minors when the regular season began. The first-round pick got a chance. The third-round pick rode buses.
“You know, throw you in the deep end, if you sink, you sink, if you swim, you swim,” Pogge says. “But there’s a lot of sharks out there. It’s tough to make it to the top. Yeah, I wish I would’ve got some time just to kinda level out there and learn the game. And there was plenty of opportunities to do that the three years I was there.”
Growing up in Penticton, B.C., Pogge was never wound too tight. He freely admits though that playing for the Leafs isn’t easy, especially as the apparent saviour in goal.
The media was always watching. And, for a member of the Leafs, the city felt smaller, more tight-knit – like everyone knew who you were. Pogge can still picture the hordes of fans waiting for an autograph, picture, or glimpse of their favourite player as the team bus pulled up to a rink outside the city for practice.
Pogge usually went home to B.C. in the offseason, fearful that the big city would “swallow me whole” in the summertime. He regrets that now, wishing he’d put down firmer roots in Toronto.
“Off the ice, I never told anyone what I did,” Pogge said. “Obviously I’d get recognized every once in a while. But I would always tell people I did construction or something like that. ‘You got the wrong guy.’ I didn’t like the spotlight that much.”
It wasn’t the trade that drove up the temperature, however. It was the pressure he put on himself to succeed. Sometimes, to quiet the noise, Pogge would hop on his long-board skateboard and coast.
He often felt like was he was on an island with the Marlies, trying to reach the shores of the NHL without a sturdy boat.
Today, the Marlies have their own experienced goaltending coach (Jon Elkin), in addition to one with the Leafs (Steve Briere). There are staff using iPads to shoot video and individually tailored instruction. Back in Pogge’s day, there was almost none of that. No coach to hop on the ice with before practice and break down how best to stop a back-door shooter — the kind of thing a goalie can only practise and analyze in a controlled environment.
Instead, Pogge found himself serving as a pawn for the skaters who were working with the Marlies assistant coaches. He now knows what he missed, and how crucial it is for a goalie to be always fine-tuning. The guidance he needed to reach the NHL, he says, was completely absent.
“It wasn’t instilled in me then,” Pogge says. “Maybe I should’ve done that on my own and reached out to some people on my own. But I figured, you’re an NHL club, you should have some NHL-quality coaching as well?”
When they did work together, then-Leafs goalie coach Steve McKichan wanted Pogge to focus on power.
“I needed control,” Pogge said. “I barely saw him over the season anyways.”
Things with Corey Hirsch, another goalie coach, went no better during the 2008-09 season. Pogge was pumped when Francois Allaire came aboard in June, 2009. Here, finally, was a coach to teach him a blocking style that would put his size — 6-foot-3 — to work. But by that point, the Leafs had already decided they were done with Pogge.
Not long after he took over, Burke had told him: “You’re a good goalie, but we’re looking for an X-factor.”
That X-factor, apparently, was a little-known Swedish goaltender nicknamed “The Monster.” Burke signed Jonas Gustavsson in July. Pogge still hoped to stay in Toronto. He’d moved into a new apartment and signed his qualifying offer.
Burke, nonetheless, promised to give him a fresh start.
A little over three years after the Leafs decided Rask was expendable because they had Pogge, they decided Pogge was expendable and dealt him to Anaheim for a conditional draft pick.
“A bag of pucks,” Pogge says now.
The Ducks had no AHL team for the 2009-10 season, so Pogge occasionally bounced straight from an ECHL outpost in Bakersfield to the NHL, where he threw on a ballcap and backed up either J.S. Giguere or Jonas Hiller. He lived out of a suitcase a few months after joining San Antonio’s AHL club, and then was dealt again into the Carolina Hurricanes system.
“That’s when you start feeling like you’re just a piece of meat,” Pogge said.
In the 11 years since he left the Leafs, Pogge has played for 12 different teams.
He came closest to getting his shot in the NHL — a real shot — with the Hurricanes in 2010, but Cam Ward stayed healthy all season and started 74 games, with Justin Peters backing him up in what remained. Pogge’s services were never required.
Though he knows he may sound jaded now, Pogge insists he loved his time in Toronto. He is proud to have played for the Leafs, if only for seven games. He knows his name-bar will live forever among Leafs alumni on the wall of the hot tub room.
Still, he wishes his Leafs career would have turned out differently. He wishes he could have been a prospect on the rise today — when the Leafs have infrastructure supporting their goalies, as well as staff members for well-being and sports science; when careful plans are put in place to ensure that each prospect, even the late rounders, gets every last chance to succeed.
A chance to develop properly and patiently is what Pogge wanted, an opportunity not only to play in the NHL but endure a rut and learn from it. The sum of his seven NHL games isn’t pretty — an .844 save percentage — but how much can one really glean from seven games as a 22-year-old on a spiraling NHL team?
What he wanted was a “legitimate opportunity, where you stay up and play games and practice” and get the full NHL experience, learn “how to be a pro rather than sticking in the minors.”
There’s no guarantee Pogge would have been an NHL starter with more time to develop and learn. But mismanagement by the Leafs ensured it wouldn’t happen.
Pogge turned 34 in April and now lives near Palm Springs with his wife and a two-and-a-half-year-old son. For the past eight years he has played in picturesque spots across Europe including Northern Italy, Bratislava, Sweden (where his son was born), and more recently, Germany, where he hopes to continue playing next season with the Berlin Polar Bears.
Former teammates told him that he would love Europe, and they were right. The midday cappuccinos, the groceries to last only a couple days — it suits him well. He finds the hockey isn’t as political either.
“You get to be your own professional,” Pogge says.
While Germany has a reputation as a hockey minnow, Pogge says it’s like a soccer stadium inside Mercedes Benz Arena in Berlin, complete with drums and 17,000 screaming fans.
A veteran approaching the end of his career, Pogge is more aware now of how to put his large frame to work. Experience means something, as the play of his offseason training pal, Ryan Miller, tends to remind him.
“I ask him questions about his blocker position every time I skate with him,” Pogge says of Miller, who just finished his age-39 season with Anaheim.
Pogge has told Miller to keep his career going because “you’re keeping me going.”
Pogge wants to play as long as he possibly can, but he’s also begun to wonder about a future beyond hockey which might include firefighting. His wife’s family is involved in the fire department and the prospect of staying active outdoors while part of a team appeals to him.
He has no complaints with how his career has played out, even if he regrets what went down in Toronto and how soon the Leafs gave up on him.
“But am I upset about it? No,” Pogge says. “Do I wish it was different? Yeah. But all in all, it kinda led me on the way I was going. If I didn’t get traded, I probably would’ve never met my wife and had the son that I do. So, I’m not (hung up on it). In hindsight, yeah, I wish they would’ve given me a better chance, a legitimate chance. I’m playing a lot better hockey than I was back then. They always told me growing up that being a goalie you have time to mature and everything, but they don’t care about that.
“It’s a different route, but I’m glad I took it,” he concludes of his journey. “Still happy and healthy and I got a beautiful family to show for it.”