Through 45 games the abject tandem of Toskala and Joseph has combined for the worst team save percentage in the NHL and by an ever increasing margin. Where .900 is seen as a barometer for average net minding in the modern game, the Blueshirted duo has managed just .886 between them. Subsequently the hard work put into making the Leafs sixth in shots against with a 28.3 per game average is being undone by a last line of defence that bares a startling resemblance to the Maginot line. Worse still the current status quo threatens to undermine the very rebuilding process Toronto are pinning their future on.
While the average Leaf insider maybe eager to point at Justin Pogge, who himself debuted this season in a winning effort against Atlanta, as the future of the franchise; two seasons out of junior in the AHL have wielded far from spectacular numbers. One could point to the flip flop nature of the Marlies as part reason for Pogge’s struggles to remain around .900 entering the midpoint of his third term, but many who have tracked his career from junior have noted that he is a slow developer. With Joseph almost certainly scrapping the barrel into retirement at the end of the season, Pogge will have the chance to be blooded in the upcoming years but he won’t be a 60 game man immediately and few can see Toskala providing useful tutelage as he tries to work out his own demons.
But at 22 Pogge shouldn’t need to be progressing rapidly, goaltending is a game of experience and many of those who cracked the NHL in their youth struggled to remain consistent performers, particularly in strong market franchises such as Toronto. Pogge could be as much as three years away from being the cornerstone of the club many have projected him to be whilst the current situation needs addressing urgently.
Subsequently Toskala’s name can go alongside Ponikarovsky, Antropov and Kaberle as potential trade bait as January winds on. With a .883 save percentage sure to knock his cap value down, a wise GM would take note of the numbers Toskala amassed in five years as understudy to Evgeni Nabokov and third fiddle to Mikka Kiprusoff as a San Jose Shark. Contracted to $4 million a year until the close of next season, Toskala has always faired better when given a backup’s workload and on current form would expect a pay cut in 2010/11. With the Leafs sporting a healthy $9.6 million of cap space it would be a surprise if Burke didn’t try to fortify in net, especially within the current market.
Indeed with cap stagnation or roll back a possibility, a team with as much cap space as the Leafs has a veritable candy shop of options, particularly in concerns of net minders this off season. With a number of starters going down injured or underachieving early in the year, several backups are experiencing career breakouts with many upstaging their mentors and leaving seasoned goalies on the bench. One particular case in point is Craig Anderson in Florida, his .933 save percentage places him third in the league behind Columbus’ young and almost certainly untouchable Steve Mason. Anderson is set to become a free agent at the close of the year and will want a considerable hike in his current $575,000 a year deal from the Panthers to stay in Florida. Current number one Vokoun finished up last year with one of the leagues best save percentages at .919 for net minders who played more than 60 games. Although the Panthers are one of the stronger franchises in concerns of cap space, the perils of just keeping the team afloat will make it difficult to keep two highly paid goaltenders. With Vokoun making $12 million in the next two years a straight up trade for Toskala could see Florida clear $1.7 million from next years salary and more the year after while providing Toronto with a seasoned campaigner.
Elsewhere Jonas Hiller has been outperforming veteran goalie Jean Sebastien Giguere in an Anaheim team with its face firmly pressed to the cap. Hiller has another year on his $1.3 million contract and has proved himself a potential starter while Anaheim could be forced to off load Giguere who stands in line to make $13 million in the next two years. A consummate professional, although inherited by Burke, Giguere proved an often spectacular performer who won his number one role back from Ilya Bryzgalov before leading the Ducks to their first Stanley Cup. For the Ducks replacing Giguere with Toskala would mean cutting $2 million from salaries and with 15 players heading into free agency at the end of the year it would make good business sense.
In Chicago, Khabibulin and Huet are eating up $12.4 million in salaries and with nine prospects hitting RFA status one is bound to go despite respective .924 and .916 save percentages. With Chicago suffering just $1.3 million in manoeuvrability, Khabibulin for all his good work this year is the more likely fall guy as he plays out the final year of a $6.75 million deal while Huet’s comparatively overblown $5.625 million contract extends up to 2013 and could prove harder to shift.
Meanwhile Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez have been splitting time and numbers in a successful Boston net this year posting .937 and .928 save percentages respectively making the Bruins net the hardest to bulge in the league. Both are UFA’s at the end of the season and with Thomas taking the reigns as number one he will want more than his current $1.1 million a year deal to stay at the club. With Fernandez finishing out the last year of a deal that has seen him earn $4.75 million in 2008/09 and the Bruins with less than $1.2 million in cap space, Fernandez will likely join a notable list of free agent goalies in the summer potentially including the above mentioned Nikolai Khabibulin, Martin Gerber and even Antero Nittymaki, of whom any could provide preferable alternatives to Toskala.
As illustrated there is a wealth of talent Toronto could acquire to plug the sieve like holes that have appeared in net, the real skill is finding a net minder who can play in the Air Canada. Focusing on the Leafs former alumni, Toronto has proved a difficult destination for back stoppers in the past. Take Andrew Raycroft for instance. An inconsistent performer in Boston he played 57 games in 2003/04 securing a .936 save percentage in the regular season. Although weak the year after the lockout, Raycroft slumped in Toronto and became a figurehead for the country club atmosphere that developed under Maurice. However, since moving to Colorado Raycroft has been more scintillating than his .903 save percentage gives him credit for at one point playing out a seven game winning streak, and the jinx doesn’t end there. Mikael Tellqvist never managed more than .895 in net for Toronto in 40 games, he has since gone on to be the perfect foil for Bryzgalov in Phoenix while Aubin effectively ended his career in Leafs nation when his .924 save percentage in 05/06 bombed to .876 the season after.
While Tellqvist was a relatively green NHLer both Raycroft and Aubin had served as starters; however like Toskala none were bona fide number ones. Indeed 03/04 was Raycroft’s only season in Boston where he played the majority of the games as was 99/00 for Aubin in Pittsburgh, other than rely on veterans such as Ed Belfour Toronto have failed to nail a true starter since Curtis Joseph’s last incarnation. For the franchise to move forward in a rebuild it has to show some forward momentum on the ice, game in game out Toskala has proved an antithesis to strong defensive performances. With so many goalies providing trade bait this off season or riding the free agency circus there has never been a better chance for Toronto to lock up a goalie that can build from the back and provide a mentor and link to Pogge.
Will there be a new number one in Toronto next year? If the answer is yes chances are it won’t be Justin Pogge, at least not quite yet.