The early returns on the 1995 NHL Entry Draft were the butt of jokes for Sharks fans for many years. The Sharks went off the charts that year, highlighted by the selection of Teemu Riihijarvi with the 12th overall pick. Riihijarvi never played one minute in the NHL. That surprise selection that year kicked off a draft where San Jose selected six Finnish players with their 12 picks, earning that day the unwanted label as the “Finnish Draft.”
Lost in the shuffle, was a non-descript pick in the 4th round (90th overall) when San Jose selected goaltender Vesa Toskala from his hometown team of Ilves Tampere. Toskala’s steady play, heroics down the stretch and performance in the first two rounds of the 2006 playoffs has single-handedly saved that draft for San Jose.
To be fair, another selection in that draft has turned into one of the NHL’s top goalies. Calgary’s Miika Kiprusoff, well known by the San Jose faithful after backstopping the Flames to a memorable Western Conference Finals victory in 2004, was selected in the fifth round (116th overall) by the Sharks. His trade to the Flames for a second round pick in 2004 turned into San Jose prospect Marc-Edouard Vlasic
. Vlasic finished the regular season ranked second on the Quebec Remparts (QMJHL) in scoring among defensemen with 73 points (16 goals, 57 assists) and has been a force in their post season.
After being drafted, Toskala remained in his native Finland until 2000-01 when he began his North American pro career, serving the prospect role for nearly another five seasons. He split the time between the Sharks and their top development teams in the AHL in Kentucky and Cleveland, respectively. Promoted at the start of the 2003-04 season, he established himself as a capable NHL goalie. Toskala continued to bide his time and learn his trade while Evgeni Nabokov continued to shine. Prior to the 2006 NHL playoffs, he had not played even one second of am NHL postseason game.
The 29-year old goaltender got hot in the second half of the year and has been given the opportunity to ride the streak. Not bad for someone who didn’t attend the draft in Edmonton that year, heck, he didn’t even have an agent at the time.
“I was at home, hanging out with friends, and didn’t know what had happened until the next day,” said Toskala. “We checked ‘DEX’ (Finnish version of internet TV), and saw the news.”
NHL tradition on draft day is for each team to present each drafted player on site an authentic NHL jersey.
“A few weeks later, a Sharks jersey showed up in the mail, and it was probably a few years later before I really heard from or had contact with the team about turning pro,” said Toskala.
Current teammate Ville Nieminen was playing across town for Tappara Tampere. Drafted in 1997 in the 3rd round (78th overall), the two had grown up together as youngsters in Tampere.
“I think it is all working out for him now,” said Nieminen. “He had been here so long, just waiting for the starting spotlight.”
More than a decade after that now infamous 1995 NHL Draft, Vesa Toskala is paying big dividends for the Sharks.
Members of the Sharks met the Edmonton media contingent in the hotel lobby.
“We have to play the same game, work hard in their zone and keep the puck down low,” said Milan Michalek, sporting sunglasses to protect his injured face.”
“We are trying to keep them pushed to the outside, to take away quality scoring chances,” said Patrick Marleau
. “(Vesa) Toskala has taken care of the rest.”
“I am sure playing at home will change that (their emotional level), it is always nice to play in front of your home fans,” said Ron Wilson. “They will try to be more aggressive. The only key for us is that we don’t change out game. That is what’s important. It prevents them from playing the game they want.”
“At the moment, we have control of the series and we want to keep it,” the Sharks Head Coach added. “If we play the same way, it will make life difficult for Edmonton.”
“I don’t match lines so I don’t concern myself with that,” remarked Wilson. “We are trying to play our game and so far it is working. When it doesn’t, we will make adjustments. The crowd will be loud, so we will have to weather the storm early.”