Saturday, March 22, 2008

Shedding Light on Vesa Toskala and the Leafs Future

After the recent 174-foot goal Vesa Toskala allowed against the Islanders, many non-Leafs fans may question the 31 year old goaltender, but that would be a mistake if you're not aware what kind of season he's endured with the Blue and White.

To begin, when the Leafs acquired Vesa Toskala in the summer, they were not expecting top five quality goaltending. Fact is, Toskala had been a career back-up goaltender to Evgeni Nabokov on the San Jose Sharks for most of his career. In the last two seasons with the Sharks, injuries to Nabokov gave Toskala the call as the starting goaltender, and he performed brilliantly. In fact, he played in the playoffs for San Jose that season, making it to the second round. Toskala finished the playoffs with a 2.45 goals-against-average and a .910 save percentage. However, last season there was a fierce goaltending battle between the two, and at year's end head coach Doug Wilson decided to trade one of them to have an undisputed starter for his club, clearing cap space in the process. He opted with Toskala after attempting to trade Nabokov's 5.1 million contract proved too be difficult. He was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a city where the scrutiny can be too much to handle for many, and often the pressure can ruin careers. The Leafs extremely critical fan base and media are constantly judging the professional athletes that represent their city, and most times, they deem unfair opinions of them. What no one was expecting, however, was the puzzling downfall of Toronto's defense. A position that was weak last season is being even more exposed this season, and it's essentially the same core.

Vesa Toskala was then thrown into the fire. He began with a sub-par pre-season, and immediately the fans and media were on his back, calling for the head of former Leafs GM, John Ferguson Junior. What many did not take into account, however, is that many goalies do not have great stats in pre-season, even future hall-of-famer Ed Belfour struggled in his pre-season debut for the Leafs a few years back. The negative attention was so overwhelming that even Doug Wilson came to defend Toskala, stating that he is a great goaltender and he's confident he'll do well in the hockey crazed city of Toronto. Shortly after this, the opening night of the regular season kicked off, a game which saw the Toronto Maple Leafs head-to-head with arch rivals, the Ottawa Senators. A difficult task considering the Senators has had the Leafs number in recent years. The Leafs lost both games against the Senators, and Toskala was once again questioned for his goaltending abilities.

While Toskala was not the goalie he is now, it's not as if the Leafs defense were helping, consistently coming up with mediocre efforts to defend their goaltender. Part of the problem was that they often left one offender in front of the net unharmed, because the two defensemen were chasing one forward in particular. Not only that, but the Leafs couldn't get control in their own zone; every game they were struggling for possession of the puck and the opposition took full advantage, making the Leafs defenders look like pylons. That's not all either, when the attackers were entering the zone, the defensemen often huddle up in the crease, screening Toskala in the process -- if they were planning to get a higher draft pick, bravo troops, bravo!

As the season progressed, so did Toskala, eventually ceasing all doubt that he is not a capable #1 goaltender. Clearly the issue was to adapt to his new team, and he did so fairly quick, covering up the defensive woes that plague this team night in and night out. Throughout the course of the season, he has consistently come up with game savers; giving the Leafs a chance to win games they have no business winning. Last season, the goaltending was a liability to the team, this season it is not.

What makes Toskala so valuable to the Leafs are his lighting quick reflexes, superb glove hand, fast lateral movement and his ability to steal games. While he is small at 5'10, he makes up for it by challenging the shooters at the appropriate times and possessing a cool demeanor. The man is fazed by absolutely nothing; he stays mentally strong no matter what the scenario, as he proved on the Island earlier this week. He currently holds a 31-22-6 record with a 2.57 GAA, a .909 SV% and 3 shutouts. Remarkable stats considering the Leafs were in the Eastern Conference basement for the better part of the season.

However, next season may once again surface some interesting decisions going into the Trade Deadline. If Cliff Fletcher is true to his word, then the Leafs will forming a much different club next season, one that will hopefully consist of young players. And with Andrew Raycroft putting up another abysmal season -- even as the Buds back-up -- all signs point that the incumbent goaltender is on his way out, thus leaving the door wide open for Justin Pogge.

With that said, you can most certainly expect that Toskala will once again be the team's go-to guy, only difference being that Pogge will be his back-up, so you can expect a shortened work load for the Finnish netminder. One has to wonder though, if Pogge delivers some solid performances will the next GM of the Leafs look into trading Toskala? The Buds would be able to acquire a vast portion of prospects, which would do nothing but help this wounded franchise. If the Leafs do decide to rebuild, then having a 23 year old goaltender in Pogge will not be the end of the world, and he can grow with the young team in the process.


Greg Balloch said...

Carey Price is playing behind a great defensive (and offensive for that matter) team, and is not getting frustrated because he is winning.

If Pogge gets called up next year to be the goalie for what is expected to be the worst Leafs team in years, he will get frustrated. He'll think that he's the reason for goals going in, and may start to change his style. It's too risky, and the Leafs should wait until their back on their feet before calling up Pogge full-time.

Unholy_Goalie said...

Toskala is an extremely valuable commodity right now and we have to move him. He's 31 years old. That means his window for Cup success is about 4 years, at best. This team can't possibly rebuild in a year and make it work nor can they wait 5 years to rebuild properly and have a top notch Toskala. We're caught in a difficult situation but the solution is simple. The Leafs have to deal Toskala to help their rebuilding process on draft day. The Leafs have to shop Toskala and shop him hard to grab themselves a lot more picks, or higher picks, in this very deep draft. People raise questions about Pogge and his confidence. That solution is also simple. You sign a plug, 1A goalie to be the starter like Kolzig, or Theodore, to a two year deal and you give Pogge the same chance Price had in Montreal. If he succeeds, so be it, if not, he plays backup and takes his time but, at least we won't have Toskala wasting away his best years in a situation that won't work for him OR for us.