The American League is a considerable climb up the career ladder for a goaltender, even one who has sparkled amid the bright lights that come with representing Team Canada.
Norfolk Admirals goaltender Dustin Tokarski won a gold medal with Team Canada earlier this year at the 2009 World Junior Championship in Ottawa to cap off a brilliant junior career that also included a Memorial Cup with the Western League’s Spokane Chiefs in 2008.
Tokarski, a 20-year-old native of Watson, Sask., now must learn the pro game while playing behind an up-and-down Norfolk team. The Admirals goaltending picture was rebuilt over the summer; while Riku Helenius remained, Mike McKenna and Karri Ramo departed to make way for Tokarski.
The Admirals are in the third year of an affiliation agreement with Tampa Bay and there is pressure on both sides to produce a playoff team after two consecutive seasons without a post-season visit.
The Tokarski-Helenius pairing, so far, has delivered for coach Darren Rumble. Norfolk ranks in the upper-third of the AHL in goals-against.
Tokarski has slid into the starting job in Norfolk, but is in competition for an NHL job in Tampa Bay down the road. Helenius, a second-year pro who was a 2006 first round pick (16th overall), provides ample competition.
“It's going great,” Tokarski said of his relationship with Helenius. “We get along really well. He's a super guy. He's fun to be a tandem with – I think he pushes me and I push him.”
Tokarski’s pro transition has been eased somewhat by a solid defensive group surrounding him. Norfolk possesses a fairly experienced top-six set of defensemen. Matt Lashoff, Mike Lundin and Ty Wishart head up the Admirals blueline and Rumble is a long-time pro defenseman who once won the AHL’s Eddie Shore Award as the league’s top defenseman.
As well, Tokarski has benefitted from facing talent comparable to what’s found in the AHL before playing a single minute in the league.
“It's similar,” said Tokarski in comparing WJC play to that found on a nightly basis around the AHL. “It's actually very similar.”
Still, even the best WJC players top out at 20 years old. AHL shooters are often seasoned pros more than capable of picking apart even the most elite of goaltending prospects.
“They make a little better plays,” Tokarski said, “and the shots are a little more accurate.”
Tokarski, who is on the small side for a netminder at the AHL level (5-foot-11, 190 pounds), generally cannot rely upon his size to erase the inevitable mistakes that come with making the massive jump from the junior game to the AHL.
Patience, therefore, becomes a necessity for a goaltender of his ilk and it’s a virtue on which Tokarski has focused through the opening two months of his pro career.
“Instead of going down a little too early,” Tokarski said, “you've got to be patient and wait for (the shooter) to make the first move.”