Well over a decade ago, a little-known Canadian netminder by the name of Justin Pogge burst onto the scene at the 2006 World Junior Championship, beating out Carey Price for the starting role.
A long-time standout in the Western Hockey League with both the Prince George Cougars and Calgary Hitmen, Pogge led Team Canada to gold in his first and only appearance at the annual WJC. Finishing the tournament with a 1.00 GAA and .952% SVP, Pogge established himself as one of the world’s top goaltending prospects, and one who would seemingly carve out a substantial career in the NHL.
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third round, 90th overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Pogge’s promise began to decline following his stellar play with Team Canada. After spending the following two seasons in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies, Pogge was promoted by the Leafs in late 2008, where he played in seven games with little success. His 1-4-1 career record in the NHL carries a GAA of 4.36, and SVP of .844%.
Following his first taste of NHL action, Pogge played sparingly as the 2008-09 campaign came to a close, and wound up playing 53 games with the Marlies in addition. Yet, this brief stint would, in fact, be Pogge’s last with the Leafs, as, after stabilizing his play with other AHL organizations, the once highly touted netminder left North America. When the 2012-13 season began, Pogge had signed with Ritten Renon in Italy Serie A, where his European hockey career would get underway.
Revitalized and Ready
Sure, heading overseas to play in various European hockey leagues may not be the typical route of development for an NHL goaltender, but in Pogge’s case, the decision paid immediate dividends.
It began in 2012-13. With Ritten Renon, Pogge began to re-establish himself as a quality goaltender, and one capable of back-stopping a competitive team. Over his 44 games played in Italy, Pogge recorded a solid record of 29-15-6, a GAA of 2.34, and an impressive SVP of .925%. Sure, it wouldn’t earn him an NHL contract, but the campaign proved again that the Fort McMurray, Alberta-native was capable of success at the professional level.
So, with a great season in hand, Pogge signed a deal with BIK Karlskoga, a non-elite team in the Swedish 1st Division. Once again, Pogge displayed the skill set which had long made him a dominant goaltender. Using his massive 6 foot 3-inch frame, he chalked up 29 wins in 51 games played, while his GAA again dipped, this time to a poor 2.16, his SVP remained high at .921%, and he earned an outstanding eight shutouts on the season.
Climbing the Ladder
Following a season defined by success, Pogge earned a two-year contract with Farjestad BK of the Swedish Hockey League, a deal that confirmed to the hockey world that Pogge was a legitimate talent.
Having inked a deal in Sweden’s top league, Pogge went to work, turning in a sensational season of play during the 2014-15 campaign. Despite notching a 13-13 record in 30 games, Pogge nailed down a scorching GAA of 2.01 and SVP of .926% in arguably the best season of his career to date.
However, looking to prove his breakout season in the SHL was no fluke, he once again dominated the crease in 2015-16. Although he played four fewer games than the previous year, Pogge was still able to post a 2.10 GAA and .922% SVP, alongside 14 wins.
— PHPA (@thephpa) September 22, 2015
Admittedly lacking the maturity to play in the NHL at the age of 20, Pogge’s decision to play overseas allowed the netminder considerable time to mature, both as a person and a player. Fortunate to retain the ability to travel from country to country, seeing the world, has made Pogge more confident and intelligent player, and those values have translated directly onto the ice.
NHL Return Imminent?
Given his incredible growth as both an individual and player, could Pogge be destined for a return to the NHL, or at least North America? Well, the answer will be dependent on his play in the 2016-17 season.
Having turned in four incredible and consistent campaigns in Italy as well as Sweden, Pogge would appear well deserving of a shot at the AHL. However, like any professional athlete, Pogge strives to be the best, and would surely prioritize an NHL deal.
— HC SLOVAN Bratislava (@hcslovanba) May 3, 2016
Therefore, his first season in the KHL with Bratislava Slovan will be of the utmost importance. If Pogge can continue to dominate at a higher level as he has in years past, chances are an NHL organization could come calling in the near future. Now, this isn’t to say he will be offered a one-way contract to return to the NHL, but a two-way deal would be a possibility, especially if Pogge can carry his European success to the North American professional game.
In all, Pogge’s game has developed dramatically since he left for Italy roughly five years ago. Having found substantial success, consistency, and confidence, Pogge is in no way the same goaltender the Leafs saw just under a decade ago.
Brett Slawson is a four-year veteran of The Hockey Writers who covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL prospects, and the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.
Contact Brett on Twitter @brettslawson92, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.