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Up to the task

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

TAMPA BAY – There’s a huge learning curve that comes with assuming any backup role in the NHL, but goaltending coach Stephane Waite insists if anyone can handle the job, Dustin Tokarski can.

It didn’t take the 25-year-old netminder long to prove his new instructor right. Days after cracking the Canadiens’ roster out of training camp in favor of veteran Peter Budaj, Tokarski paced Michel Therrien’s troops to a 2-1 shootout victory in Washington in his first start of the 2014-15 campaign. That performance, coupled with the Watson, SK native’s postseason heroics during the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, are as good an indication as any that he’s primed for duty at the NHL level in La Belle Province.

“Dustin has plenty of experience behind him. He played in the AHL for five years. That’s a long time. He led his class. Now, it’s time for him to step up and play in the NHL. He’s ready for that. He proved that last season in the playoffs. We’re not surprised with how he played. He’s ready to play at the highest level,” offered Waite, who foresees Tokarski starting about 20 games this season, with a good portion of those starts coming in the 15 remaining back-to-back series of games the Canadiens have on their schedule. “I like how he competes. That’s his biggest strength. He battles. He’s a gamer. We all know that.”

Those intangibles aside, Waite is adamant that Tokarski’s road to success in Montreal will ultimately be paved by putting a bevy of key principles into practice as he begins a new chapter in his hockey career.

“This is going to be a learning process for him. It’s the first time in his career that he’s in a backup role. That’s a different job. It’s totally different in terms of preparation. He’s going to have to learn how to be prepared to play three, four, maybe five games a month, which is very tough to do,” confided Waite, referencing the fact that Tokarski started 40-plus games a year during stints with the Norfolk Admirals, Syracuse Crunch and Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL. “It’s all about doing a little bit extra on the ice every day, staying after practice, being on the ice before practice. That’s a lot of sacrifice. Staying sharp every day is tough. You’ve got to stay quick, and you’ve got to stay confident. Being a backup is a lot of work.

“He’ll have to get to know the league, and learn a lot about shooters and their tendencies, how they play, and the different rinks in terms of bounces off the glass, lighting, and more,” added Waite, who believes Tokarski’s previous NHL experience with the Canadiens will fast-track the learning process somewhat for the former fifth-round selection of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008. “That’s a normal thing. It’s a big year for him, and I think he’ll learn a lot. He understands what’s involved, and he’s ready for it.”

Case in point is the manner in which Tokarski quickly embraced his surroundings after learning that Montreal would be his hockey home.

“I’m thrilled to be a part of this team. It’s a dream come true right now. I’m going to try to do whatever I can both on and off the ice to help us win, be a good teammate, continue to work hard, not take anything for granted and just keep on going,” explained Tokarski, who boasts a perfect 3-0 record in three career regular-season starts with the Canadiens. “Montreal is a heck of a hockey market. I love it. I like to perform, and I enjoy the atmosphere of putting it all on the line. I just think Carey, Steph and I all have the same mentality. I can see that they love to win, and ultimately it’s all about working hard and getting results. I want to just bring that to the table.”

Tokarski’s calm and cool approach to his new job shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the 2009 World Junior Hockey Championship gold-medalist is learning the proverbial tricks of the NHL goaltending trade from two of the best in the business in Waite and three-time NHL All-Star Carey Price.

“Carey’s preparation is outstanding, and his demeanor is, too. You’re always watching him on the ice, but I’ve picked up on how he carries himself and how he approaches the game, and works and communicates with the guys off the ice. It’s all about stuff like that. He’s been world-class to me and treated me like a friend,” mentioned Tokarski, who is looking forward to getting better acquainted with the eight-year NHL veteran this season. “I’m really lucky to have Steph and Carey as my mentors right now. There’s no better spot for a young goalie to be in and learn. I’m always picking up on things from the both of them.”

That being said, does the Price-Tokarski tandem have the necessary ingredients to be successful in the long run? According to Waite, the answer is an emphatic yes.

“Dustin has the same personality as Pricer. He’s very low-profile. I’m sure they’ll get along very well. The most important thing is that Dustin understands his role. We’ve asked Dustin just to look at Pricer as an example. We’ve told him to look at how he works. Carey’s a very good example for Ticker. I know Ticker likes Carey a lot. He wants to be like him, so I know Pricer is going to help Ticker along, too. That’s a good duo. We know every night we’ve got a chance to win with those two goalies. I like our situation,” offered Waite. “Even though they’re only two years apart, Carey’s been in the league for such a long time for his age. He’ll be a good teacher for Ticker. Nothing’s complicated with those two kids.”

Nevertheless, Tokarski knows full well that he’s got a lot to prove to himself and others in the coming months, and he’s adamant that he’s up to the task.

“People might think that playing behind Carey Price is easy. Games-wise, it definitely is because you’re working less of a load. But, when you’re not playing, it’s all about being prepared and working hard for your teammates, helping to make them better and always trying to get better yourself,” explained Tokarski, who made his NHL debut as a member of the Lightning back in 2009-10. “When I do get the opportunity to play and my teammates need me to go on the ice and try to help them win, I need to deliver. You’ve got to work hard in practice so when the game comes, they have confidence in you and they respect you. Then, it’s mutual.”

Based on Tokarski’s body of work thus far with the Canadiens, it’s hard to believe that sense of mutual respect isn’t already firmly in place.

“I just love the role I’m in right now,” concluded Tokarski. “When I’m not playing, I’m going to do everything I can to help my teammates win, while supporting Carey through it all. When the time comes to get in there and play, I’ll be ready to go.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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