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Lightning Goaltending Prospects Displaying Promise in Calder Cup Playoffs

by Dan Marrazza / Tampa Bay Lightning

When you talk to any Tampa Bay Lightning fan, their biggest concern heading into this summer is how general manager Steve Yzerman will address his team’s goaltending situation.

After all, the Lightning allowed a league-worst 278 goals this past season and have only one goalie, Mathieu Garon, with any significant NHL experience under contract.

While many fans are clamoring for a blockbuster trade or free-agent signing that will immediately solve every issue that caused Tampa Bay to defensively struggle this past season, the fact of the matter is that occurrences of big-name goalies being acquired and living up to expectations are few and far in between.

In fact, not since Nikolai Khabibulin backstopped the Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004 has a Stanley Cup-winning team’s top goalie been someone who was a big-name acquisition with an established career with another team.

This trend will continue this season regardless of what team wins the Stanley Cup, given that Jonathan Quick, Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Brodeur, the three remaining teams’ number-one goalies, were all drafted and developed by their current clubs.

Steve Yzerman and his staff will undoubtedly exhaust all avenues to try to acquire the sort of elite goalie that could buck this trend and immediately step in as the Bolts’ number-one puckstopper. However, regardless of whether the team acquires a big-name goalie this summer or not, the status of the team’s top two goaltending prospects definitely leaves Tampa Bay with a pair of possible solutions already in its organization.

The man considered by many to be the Lightning’s top goaltending prospect, 2008 fifth-round draft pick Dustin Tokarski, just completed an Eastern Conference Finals series in the American Hockey League where he pitched two shutouts and allowed only two total goals in four games, planting the Norfolk Admirals in the Calder Cup Finals.

Prior to Tokarski’s dominant Eastern Conference Finals, Tampa Bay’s next-highest rated goalie prospect, Jaroslav Janus, secured each of Norfolk’s two prior postseason victories, allowing only one goal in 131:55 of action.

“Our two goalies definitely push each other,” said Norfolk’s leader in playoff scoring, Alexandre Picard. “It’s healthy competition when everybody pushes for ice time and it makes everybody around them better.”

Critics will be quick to argue that neither Tokarski nor Janus has done anything at the NHL level yet, meaning that neither could possibly be the right solution for the Lightning’s immediate goaltending needs.

But while Tokarski, with one NHL win in his career, and Janus, a goalie who has yet to play an NHL game, would both not be the big-name splash that many team onlookers just assume needs to be made this summer; the successes and patterns that both goalies’ careers are following shows that neither is very far off from being a legitimate NHL goalie.

“Dustin (Tokarski) has gotten a lot of experience this year,” said Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean. “At this time last year, he was more of a ‘blocker.’ We’ve built much more control into his game in the last year where he controls rebounds much better now, which takes away teams’ secondary chances. He’s not as big, but his style reminds me a little bit of J.S. Giguere.”

Considering that Giguere, a 1995 draft pick of the Hartford Whalers, didn’t become a regular NHL goalie until 2000, Tokarski would become a regular NHL goalie sometime in 2013 if his career continued to follow the pattern that J.S. Giguere’s career took.

“Like Giguere, Dustin is extremely good technically and very sound in his side-to-side movement,” added Jean. “The thing with goaltenders is that it takes time, though. There is no magic recipe. Goaltenders that jump into the NHL at 21 or 22 and are immediately successful are rare. This was Dustin’s third year in the AHL, so he isn’t necessarily a rookie and is almost there.”

While Tokarski has shown lots of similarities to J.S. Giguere, it would by no means be fair to immediately pencil him in to win a Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy and have a decade of winning seasons like Giguere has had.

As Frantz Jean said, “there is no magic recipe” and goaltending is by far the hardest position in hockey to forecast.

But what puts the Lightning in a unique situation is that even if Tokarski’s career was to be set back, Jaroslav Janus’ improvements this past season have taken him from the ECHL to being one of the AHL’s elite goaltenders, and also a legitimate prospect.

Janus, starter in four of the Admirals’ 2012 playoff games, is 3-1 in this playoff year, where he’s second among AHL goaltenders in playoff goals-against average (1.69) behind Tokarski (1.65).

Furthermore, Janus is 18-1 in his last 19 starts dating back to the regular season, which is a stretch where he has a 1.46 goals-against average, .943 save percentage and two shutouts.

“Jaro’s work has been very consistent in the last two seasons,” said Frantz Jean. “We started to work real early in development camp last season. Now he’s trusted the system we’ve put in place and had success. For him, it’s just the question of getting in more games, in more situations and continuing to learn the ins and outs of pro hockey. He needs to build on the successes he’s had lately and just keep improving.”

Just as it isn’t fair to guarantee that Dustin Tokarski will become the next J.S. Giguere, it wouldn’t be fair to point to one goalie that Jaroslav Janus is destined to become.

However, just as was the case with Tokarski, Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean can see some similarities between Janus’ style and a particular current NHL goalie.

“Jaro is very athletic, very agile and has very good puck-tracking abilities, kind of like a Miikka Kiprusoff,” said Jean. “He’s good with his hands and can make saves when everybody thinks he’s down and out, and that it’s a sure goal. He can get across and get there. In terms of style, Miikka Kiprusoff would definitely be the guy closest to him.”

Given the time it took Miikka Kiprusoff to blossom into a regular NHL goalie, Jaroslav Janus would become a regular NHL puckstopper sometime in 2014 if his career followed the pattern of Kiprusoff’s.

Nobody in the Lightning organization is going to sit around and passively address the team’s goaltending issues this summer because of Tokarski’s and Janus’ potential, though.

Steve Yzerman and his staff will continue to examine all possibilities, and if the right trade opportunity presents itself; they’ll make it. Or if the right free agent becomes available; they’ll do their absolute best to sign him.

However, the luxury of having not one, but two nicely-developing goaltending prospects prevents the team from being forced to make a desperate move this summer and risk burying itself with the bad contract of a player who clearly wouldn’t be a long-term solution.

Even though it remains to be seen if either Tokarski or Janus will play for the Lightning next season, fans should not expect that either is far away from regularly wearing the blue and white of a Tampa Bay uniform, regardless if either makes the team out of training camp next fall.

But before Tokarski and Janus push for roster spots next fall, they still have serious business to tend to this spring.

The pair of goalies, combining to lead the Norfolk Admirals to the AHL’s best team goals-against average in the playoffs (1.86), have four more wins to secure to fulfill the Lightning’s top minor-league affiliate’s championship dream.

Given that the Admirals had an AHL-best 113 points during the regular season, Norfolk will have home-ice advantage in the Calder Cup Finals that begin next week against either the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, or the Edmonton Oilers’ top affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons.

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