Inside the Blue Paint
What is the biggest Leaf question mark for next season?
Who will play goal?
What is the greatest area of strength in the Leaf organization?
Strangely enough, goal.
A worry and yet a comfort, all at the same time.
See, the Ed Belfour era is over, short though it was. That means some way, somehow, GM John Ferguson has to find a way to fill the net next season without having the net filled, if you know what I mean.
He can go for a big fix, like, say, trying to see if the Florida Panthers would be interested in trading Roberto Luongo rather than signing him.
Or, he can go for the short-term fix in hope one of the club's goaltending prospects comes through as a bona fide NHL star in two or three years.
What's interesting, however, is that the claim of goaltending consultant Steve McKichan halfway through this season that the Leaf goalie depth chart ran seven masked men deep has proven to have more than a grain of truth to it.
Belfour, of course, was at the top of the pyramid, followed by his Swedish understudy Mikael Tellqvist. Tellqvist was pushed in training camp by J. F. Racine, who seemed third on the totem pole.
But not so quick. Jean Sebastien Aubin has emerged in the past three days to stake his own claim, winning for the big club twice on the road while allowing five goals on 69 shots.
Aubin came up from the Marlies, where Todd Ford has found some success this season. Finally, there are the two potential gems, Tuukka Rask of Finland and Canadian national junior hero Justin Pogge.
Despite all the hype and hope, there's no guarantee either Pogge or Rask will turn out. Indeed, Pogge has struggled of late for the Calgary Hitmen and on Wednesday surrendered six goals in a 6-4 playoff lost to Lethbridge, a game in which coach Kelly Kisio considered pulling his star goalie several times.
Many goalies are quirky, and apparently Pogge is no exception. After wearing white pads and gloves all season, he ditched them in favor of an all-black, Johnny Cash look for the playoffs. But after the second period against Lethbridge, he dumped the black and went back to the white.
Hopes are high, of course, that one or both of Pogge and Rask will turn out, but finding goalies is an inexact science, moreso perhaps even than unearthing defencemen and forwards.
One need look no further than Cristobal Huet, the hottest goalie in the league with six shutouts in 30 games for the Montreal Canadiens. Glenn Healy, meanwhile, was never drafted at any level of hockey, from Jr. B to the NHL, yet played 16 years in the bigs.
Which brings us back to the central question for the Leafs going into the off-season. Clearly, the Leafs need to find a veteran goalie capable of playing at least 40 games, with the hope being that one of Tellqvist, Aubin or Racine emerges as the netminder who can handle the other half of the job.
Unless, of course, it's decided that, say, Tellqvist and Aubin could be a workable duo, with cap money spent elsewhere to buttress a thin lineup.
That said, after a year in which the absence of standout goaltending may well have cost the Leafs a playoff berth, the team can little afford to gamble.
Forget the decision about Bryan McCabe or whether Pat Quinn returns as coach.
Figuring out this net puzzle while laying the ground for future stars to emerge is the most fundamental and significant issue facing the club this summer.