Tokarski Adapting Well in AHL, Looks to Prove Critics Wrong

Dustin Tokarski finished with 1.97 goals-against average, and won a career-high of 34 games during his last junior season.The question will be if he can acclimate to the NHL, despite his 5-foot-11 frame.

Becoming a forward didn’t keep Norfolk Admirals rookie Dustin Tokarski's interest.

Working the blue line?

Nah…

How about between the pipes?

For Tokarski, the net became a natural fit, especially during his junior career. Tokarski finished with 1.97 goals-against average, a .937 save percentage, and won a career-high of 34 games with the Spokane Chiefs (2008-2009).

During that span, he sandwiched a gold medal in the World Juniors with Team Canada and added another gold accolade with Spokane for the 2008 Memorial Cup. In three seasons with Spokane, he finished with an overall record of 77-39-7.

With the introductions out of the way, Tokarski will face his biggest challenge yet - proving he can be the No. 1 goalie in AHL Norfolk and show NHL Tampa Bay he’s worth it.

He’s not alone in that endeavor, Tokarski platoons with second-year pro Riku Helenius (5-6).

Tokarski wasn’t overly concerned about Helenius, in fact he didn’t mention the competition directly - his mind is on adapting to the AHL.

“It’s been an adjustment playing in this league. The game is faster and the players have a lot more talent,” Tokarski, who was drafted in round five of the 2008 NHL draft, said. “I’m confident that I can help this team win. I need to prove myself if I want to play more.”

As of Dec. 13, Tokarski (8-8-1) had clocked in 959 minutes, compared to Helenius (660 minutes). In 16 games with Norfolk, Tokarski has a 2.44 goals-against average with a save percentage of .913 percent. He's stopped a total of 407 shots.

Norfolk head coach Darren Rumble said both goalies will split time until one starts dominating, or the Admirals reach the postseason.

“We’re not going with Riku or Dustin. There have been inconsistencies with both of them,” Rumble said. “If it comes down to the wire, we’ll go with the hot-hand for must-win games.”

Tampa Bay remains neutral about Tokarski’s playing time.

“The Lightning said to dress whoever we decided to dress. We haven’t had any pressure to play one more than the other right now,” Rumble said.

Tokarski, who hails from Watson, Saskatchewan, a population of less than 800 people, has learned a big league lesson - patience.

“Simply, I need to be patient about the first pass as well as the back door-pass,” Tokarski said. “I’m adjusting to the speed. I’m happy about how things are going here. I’m focused.”

One of Tokarski’s tools is his focus, another the ability to stay square against his opponents. An additional weapon, vital to any goalie’s success, is keeping cool against adversity.

“Dustin is calm under pressure, and responds well to rebounds and reading plays. He’s a collective blocker. He will find ways to let the puck hit him,” Rumble said. “But he needs to work on coming out quicker and getting to the puck quicker. That will come with experience.”

Tokarski stands at 5-foot-11 and there are concerns about his future as an NHLer, where taller goalies can cover more space from the butterfly position.

“He’s not huge, but he’s not small,” Rumble said. “He comes out of the crease and can cut down the angle, which could be very deceiving to a skater. He’ll do well in the NHL, with more experience.”

Tokarski intends to use his time to gain enough respect and join the ranks of current Lightning goalies, Mike Smith and Antero Niittymaki.

“I would give the team 110 percent,” Tokarski said. “I'd do everything I could to help win. I’m confident that I can get the job done. I would tell them ‘I’m the man for the job.’”

Yes, confidence - an ingredient Tokarski has quite a supply of.

“I’m not worried about him falling off the apple truck,” Rumble laughed. “Sometimes players who are inconsistent lose their confidence. He doesn’t need to rely on making a heroic or miraculous save to keep his confidence.”

The Lightning gave Tokarski simple advice in camp.

“They said to keep doing what I am doing,” he said. “I’m on the right track, and to keep my head on straight.”

For Tokarski, the net was a natural choice.

“I wanted to become a goalie because I liked being in control, and I loved playing on the defensive side.”

It's a choice the Lightning, Admirals, and each of his previous teams have greatly appreciated.

(Photo by J.D. Weakland)