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Toskala looks to bounce back with hometown club

by Bill Meltzer
In the world of professional hockey, a player's career fortunes can change in a hurry. This is especially true for goaltenders. When Vesa Toskala first broke into the NHL with the San Jose Sharks after a successful early career in Europe, his play was a revelation. Not much has gone his way ever since.

The 34-year-old netminder, who signed a one-year contract this summer with Ilves Tampere of Finland's SM-Liiga, is hoping a return to his hometown team will help reverse his fortunes.

"The last few seasons haven't been what I hoped for," he said. "It will be nice to return to play for Ilves. I'm feeling strong, and I think we have a good team that can definitely go further than last year."

"The last few seasons haven't been what I hoped for. It will be nice to return to play for Ilves. I'm feeling strong, and I think we have a good team that can definitely go further than last year."
-- Vesa Toskala

Last season, Ilves squeaked into the postseason, finishing 10th in the 14-team league. In the first-round miniseries, the club upended favored HPK Hameenlinna. However, Ilves went down quickly in the quarterfinals to JyP Jyvaskyla (the first-place finisher during the regular season), getting swept in four straight games by a combined 17-9 score. This year, Toskala will attempt to unseat former AHL goaltender Miika Wiikman as Ilves' primary starter.

Toskala has not seen much game action since leaving the NHL in the summer of 2010. Last year, he was a man without a team heading into the regular season. When Swedish club AIK Stockholm ran into early-season injuries, they signed Toskala to a one-month contract. He got into just two games and did not stand out, while previously unknown goaltender Viktor Fasth took the starting job and ran with it. When Toskala's temporary contract expired in early December, AIK let him go. 

He remained unsigned until Ilves brought him back for 2011-12.  The native of Kungasala (a community neighboring Tampere) rose through the Ilves junior ranks, making his SM-Liiga debut at the age of 18. He was selected in the fourth round of the 1995 Entry Draft by San Jose. Toskala spent four seasons with Ilves' senior club before accepting an offer to join Swedish Elitserien team, Farjestads BK Karlstad. With the exception of playing three regular season and six playoff tilts for Ilves during the NHL labor stoppage of 2003-04, Toskala's return to Tampere this season will mark the first time in 11 years that he has been a full-time member of his hometown club's roster.

In addition to signing Toskala, Ilves lured former Montreal Canadiens defenseman Martti Jarventie away from defending Finnish champion HIFK Helsinki during the offseason. The 35-year-old Jarventie, who has already been appointed as Ilves' new captain, scored 8 goals and 34 points during the regular season last year, adding 7 points in 14 playoff games en route to winning the Canada Cup (the trophy awarded to the Finnish champions).


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"Our team is now complete," Ilves General Manager Seppo Hiitela told the team's official site. "Defense in SM-Liiga is very competitive. Jarventie's mobility and skill gives us the opportunity to diversify our play. In turn, Toskala is highly motivated and looking forward to the start of next season. When it became possible to get those players, we made a coaching decision to consistently place a high emphasis we place on defense, because that way, we'll know we get [on a game-in and game-out basis]."

In addition to their new recruits in goal and defense, Ilves will also retain its top-scoring forwards from last season. Former Edmonton Oilers first-round pick Jesse Niinimaki (No. 15, 2002) led the squad last season with 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists), followed by Canadian import Mark Lee (11 goals, 38 points). While iconic veteran Pasi Maatanen, who had served as the team's captain, retired at age 38 after last season, 21-year-old Nashville Predators prospect Joonas Rask (drafted in the seventh round in 2010) appears poised for a breakout season offensively after posting 14 goals and 27 points last year.

If Ilves is to improve its place in the standings in 2011-12, there is considerable room for improvement in cutting down the number of goals the team gives up. Last season, the team ranked dead last in the league with 192 goals allowed but partially made up for it with its sixth-ranked offense (161 goals scored). Toskala will need to be part of the solution, and he will have to shake off the rust of last season's inactivity in addition to putting two-plus seasons of struggle in the NHL behind him.

After being traded by San Jose to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toskala played commendably his first season, posting a 33-25-6 record, 2.74 goals-against average and .907 save percentage with three shutouts for a Leafs club that finished in the cellar of the Northeast Division in 2007-08. Thereafter, his performance was inconsistent at best. In his second season, his subpar .891 save percentage and 3.23 GAA were exacerbated by a torn acetabular labrum that required season-ending hip surgery. He never regained his form thereafter, struggling mightily in 2009-10 before finishing up the season with the Calgary Flames as the backup to fellow Finn Miikka Kiprusoff. That was followed by his abbreviated stint in Elitserien with AIK last season.

In recent preseason action, Toskala has begun to take steps toward putting his recent difficulties behind him. Most notably, he looked sharp in backstopping Ilves to a 4-2 win in an exhibition game against his former AIK teammates. Ilves' SM-Liiga regular season schedule starts on Sept. 16 with a local derby in the home rink of arch-rival Tappara Tampere. The home slate begins the following night with a rematch against last season's first-round playoff opponent, HPK.
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