The progression always seemed to come naturally, but in the case of Dustin Tokarski the journey up the ranks of hockey’s hierarchy proved more of an evolution that has unexpectedly, yet pleasantly defied expectations.
Like that of many NHL prospects, the experience of Dustin Tokarski wasn’t too different from his fellow competitors. Start in juniors, move up to the AHL, leap to the NHL. But what does set the Lightning goaltending prospect apart is not his progression as a player, but that of what he has accomplished.
Tokarski, 20, is generally regarded as the Lightning’s top prospect in the their minor league system, despite being a late fifth-round draft pick, 122nd overall, in 2008. He has known hockey all his life, but did not seriously consider mastering the position of goaltender until he was 13-years-old, just four years before making his junior league debut in net for the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. Yet, from an outsider’s viewpoint, consideration of his late decision to man the crease followed by early success only compliments his growing, yet already impressive resume.
“I was always a forward growing up who could score goals, but I often found myself playing in a defensive position and blocking a lot of shots,” Tokarski said. “I thought it was fun, so I decided to put both of them together. My love for goaltending was kind of born out of that.”
Prior to arriving in Norfolk this past season, in which he capped his highly anticipated professional debut with 27 wins and a .915 save percentage after logging more than 3,000 minutes, Tokarski led Spokane to the 2008 Memorial Cup and was also named the top goaltender as well as most valuable player of the tournament. He continued his success just a year later by backstopping Team Canada to its fifth consecutive gold medal at the 2009 World Junior Championships, turning back 39 of 40 shots in the Gold Medal Game.
That same string of achievements signals a positive elevation through the hockey ranks, but it also doubles as a hopeful sign for additional good fortune to continue in the future.
“I really want to train hard over the summer, get my body in good shape, and try and earn a spot on the team,” Tokarski said. “My goal is to make it to the NHL and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there.”
Hardly surprising, however, is the fact that Tokarski has already been there. The Watson, Saskatchewan native made his NHL debut in relief on January 16 at Florida, playing 20 minutes and stopping all five shots faced. Tokarksi’s impressive premiere was enough to earn him a second appearance just three days later at Madison Square Garden, as he made eight saves while channeling childhood hero Henrik Lundqvist from across the ice as the Lightning faced off against the Rangers.
“It was awesome,” Tokarski recalled. “Everything about it was a blast, and for me it was a dream come true. My junior career was good. The AHL was definitely a step up. Then the NHL was another step. So I think there were a few learning curves and some things I needed to adjust in my game, but overall I think I was in a decent groove.”
Tokarski’s NHL transition was eased somewhat by a solid defensive group surrounding him, consisting of veteran Mattias Ohlund, standout rookie Victor Hedman and Mike Lundin, whose familiar presence in front of the net provided a degree of solace for Tokarski after the two had spent time with the Admirals before Lundin’s recall to Tampa Bay.
Even so, Tokarski has benefitted from facing talent at the NHL level, where a large majority of shooters are often seasoned pros more than capable of picking apart even the most talented goaltending prospects.
“Overall, the NHL is just a better league,” Tokarski admitted. “Players are bigger, stronger, faster, smarter and it forces you to adapt to better skill sets. Especially as a goaltender, you just have to be ready for anything.”
Including being named as one of hockey’s elite young stars.