A new environment. A fresh start.
That’s all it took for Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending prospect Justin Pogge in order to turn around his 2004-05 Western Hockey League season.
After a very unspectacular first half of the season with the Prince George Cougars, the often inconsistent Pogge found himself in a new locale in January of this year, in a move spurred by inconsistent goaltending from another franchise.
In an attempt to give his club a legitimate chance in the 2005 WHL Playoffs, General Manager Kelly Kisio, who also serves as the squad’s co-coach, opted to deal from a position of strength in order to secure Pogge. Gone was Calgary native Andy Rogers, a first round selection in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, as well as then-Hitmen starter Scott Bowles and overaged forward Lee Zalasky.
The Hitmen welcomed a trio of new faces to their line-up, including overaged forward Tyrel Lukas and defenseman Dylan Yeo. Perhaps no piece to the puzzle was more significant for the Hitmen organization than that of Pogge, though, who joined the club with an unimpressive 2.80 goals against average and a .891 save percentage.
Although the trade caught him off guard, it was exactly the kind of shake-up Pogge needed, one made easier by being accompanied by a pair of familiar faces, but ones that weren’t as recognizable in his new dressing room.
“I was pretty surprised,” admitted Pogge when hearing of the trade. “I was a little sad leaving the guys in Prince George, but the guys here welcomed me in. I’m just one of the guys here, it’s great.”
“It was pretty cool going with a couple of guys that I know from the team. They’ve stepped up their game, and I’m stepping up mine.”
Since Pogge was acquired by the Kisio and the Calgary Hitmen, the team has hit its stride, sitting 11 games over .500, the highest they’ve seen themselves in the standings all season. Pogge has upped his game as well, playing some of the best hockey of his junior career. In 20 games with the Hitmen, Pogge’s put up impressive numbers, including a .920 save percentage and a 2.20 goals against, a definite improvement from the first half of his season with the Cougars.
“I could never get onto a roll [in Prince George], because if you lose a game then you didn’t start the next game. You could never get into a groove,” Pogge said. “Here I got into a grove, so it’s really nice. I just wanted to come to a team where I could play every game. They’re giving me a chance. I’m just rolling with it and the team’s playing extremely well in front of me. I can’t ask for more than that.”
Pogge became the fifth Hitmen goaltender to suit up in two seasons, joining the likes of Bowles, back-up goaltender Daniel Spence, and former Hitmen goaltenders Barry Brust and Gerry Festa. Solid goaltending had been a question mark for the Hitmen all season, who can now finally depend on solid goaltending night in, night out as they head into the last ten games of the season, jockeying for position with division rivals Red Deer and Medicine Hat. Certainly Pogge’s competitive spirit will aid in any playoff run for the Hitmen.
As for his confidence, Pogge admits that he’s a lot more comfortable playing behind the Hitmen defense.
“I’m pretty confident these days,” boasted the 2004 NHL Entry Draft selection. “The team’s playing really well and the defensemen are clearing pucks when there’s a rebound, and letting me see the pucks.”
The confidence is mutual.
Hitmen defenseman and 2005 NHL Draft eligible Dustin Kohn certainly has a new confidence in his goaltending, and appreciates what Pogge has brought to the club, not only on the ice, but off of it as well.
“Last year we had (Barry) Brust back there, and this year we’ve got Pogge back there now,” began Kohn in the similarities of goaltending deadline deals from both this year and last. “It’s definitely helpful to have a guy like that. It takes a lot of pressure off. Even if it only happens two or three times a period, that could be the one or two or three times that, for a defenseman, it’s tough, you have to pick up the puck and you’re going to get hammered no matter what you do, so it’s good to have a goalie back there like Pogge who can go back there and grab the puck for us.”
Success early for the Hitmen after the trade certainly went a long way into establishing a trust with Pogge’s new teammates.
“He’s won the first couple of games when he was here, and those close games gave the whole group a boost of confidence. You could also tell from the first practice with the team that he was a good goalie who was going to help this team.”
Not only has life been easier for the Hitmen defensemen on the ice, off the ice has become a lot more interesting as well. As Kohn admitted, Pogge’s been nothing but a blessing for the Calgary Hitmen dressing room, a squad that has been up and down with both injuries, struggles, and successes all throughout the year.
“In the dressing room, he’s a funny guy, and real easy to relate to. As soon as he first came here, you could tell guys would really like him,” smiled Kohn.
“I love to play,” admitted Pogge, something he’s been able to do a whole lot of since being acquired by Calgary. “I don’t like sitting on the bench, so this is a dream come true.”
A hot goaltender goes a long way when it comes time for the Western Hockey League playoffs, and after clinching a playoff berth, Pogge will focus on another dream, a WHL Championship. Justin Pogge was brought into the Calgary Hitmen organization for one sole purpose; to be a hot hand come playoff time. For the time being the Calgary Hitmen, who have clinched a playoff spot, will have to wait for that chance.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.