Dustin Tokarski with the Norfolk Admirals last season (2010-11 season photo by MTBoltfan)
There's been some talk recently about the Tampa Bay Lightning calling up goalie prospect Dustin Tokarski from the Norfolk Admirals. Wednesday morning, Damian Cristodero of the St. Petersburg Times posed the possibility that General Manager Steve Yzerman might be considering the move.
It may not happen right away (it actually may not happen at all) but it is not a stretch to believe that if Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson continues struggling, GM Steve Yzerman might soon bring goaltender Dustin Tokarski up from AHL Norfolk for a couple-game look-see.
Joe Yerdon, from ProHockeyTalk.com, cited Cristodero's article, but his headline went a bit further than Cristodero's did: "Don't worry, Dustin Tokarski might save Tampa Bay in goal."
Now I'm certain that Cristodero knows a lot more about what Yzerman is thinking than I am. I'm also sure that both Cristodero and Joe Yerdon are very smart fellows, and that they aren't the only ones thinking this. However, as much as I sympathize with fans who want to see some move made to shore up the back end, my first reaction is that the potential promotion of Tokarski is not a good idea. It essentially risks future stability in the slim hopes of gaining in the short-term.
Tokarski is not simply not ready for the NHL. He wasn't ready last season and he hasn't shown he's ready this season. For most of the first part of the Admirals' 2011-12 season, he has been splitting time with fellow goaltending prospect Jaroslav Janus. Up until about three weeks ago, the two had almost identical TOI. Last season (2010-11), Tokarski played 46 games (.901SV% and 2.65 GAA). He has yet to play in a starting role in the AHL for an entire season.
In 16 games this season (937 minutes), Tokarski has made 344 saves on 382 shots. He sits at .901 SV% and 2.43 GAA over those games. He has faced an average of 26.5 shots per 60 minutes of ice time. He's been doing better over the last couple of weeks--something Cristodero pointed out--but the NHL ground is littered with goalies who can string together a few weeks of good play. It says little about their long-term consistency.
Even at his strongest pace of the season, Tik's numbers didn't set the AHL world on fire. Going by the figures Cristodero mentioned (14 games, 2 shutouts, .918 SV% and 1.94 GAA), Tokarski would be in the top-10 AHL goaltenders in GAA and the top-20 in save percentage. But those figures cut off his bad start while including a period of very good play between the middle of October and the middle of November. Yes, Tokarski got hot for a little while. It appears, though, that he's back down to earth.
In the last 4 weeks, he has played 7 games, facing 155 shots and giving up 15 goals in 416 minutes of ice time. That gives him a stat line of .903 SV%/2.16 GAA/ 22.4 SA/60. That's good for 32nd in the AHL in save percentage and 8th in GAA. It's not bad by any means, but it's not the kind of thing that screams "This kid is ready!" (Our old friend, Cedrick Desjardins, is putting up the best numbers in that league at .946 and 1.70, but he's only played in 10 games this season.)
Contrast that to Mathieu Garon's stat line over the last 4 weeks: 10 games, 234 shots, 22 goals against in 506 minutes (.905/2.61/27.8). The Lightning goalie is facing a lot more shots and playing a lot more minutes, but is doing just about as well as Tokarski's doing in Norfolk.
My point here isn't that Tokarski is a bust, but that he's not going to be the answer to the Lightning's goalie needs at this point in time. Calling up Tokarski and putting him in a situation he's not ready for risks doing a whole lot more damage than good.
In an email conversation Wednesday, Chad Schnarr from BoltProspects.com had this to say about Tokarski:
Dustin Tokarski is about a year or more away from being a legitimate NHL option for the Tampa Bay Lightning. This year, his third professional season, he is working on consistency both in terms of on ice performance and his mental approach to each game . . . The AHL is the place for young goaltenders to work these patterns out before being physically and mentally ready for the grind the NHL takes on every part of a player. He is known as a big-game goaltender that plays his best with the most on the line, but being counted on as a savior of sorts for the Lightning right now is too much too soon. Eventually he'll likely be a very solid and reliable No.1 goaltender, but that's a couple years off.
One big factor to keep in mind--and I know you're tired of hearing me say this--is that the team simply isn't keeping shots-against under control. That has to be fixed. Sliding a kid into even a backup role he's not ready for under these circumstances is far from ideal and it creates expectations that would be virtually impossible for Tokarski to meet. Once a goalie disappoints at the NHL level, it can be very difficult to get back on track. Expecting any goaltender to save this season is unrealistic. Expecting a kid with 44 minutes experience in the NHL to do it is close to fantasy.
The real kicker, though, is that Tokarski is expected to be the future in Tampa Bay. The team needs to be able to rely on him for a number of years. That's why teams draft goalies in the first place. In calling up Tokarski, and placing him in a position where the odds against sustainable success are so great, the team would be risking that future. Behind Tokarski is Janus, 22 years old and never a starter before, even at the AHL level. Behind Janus sits Pat Nagle, currently in his first professional season while playing with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. As little depth as this organization has on defense (something I've seen many fans bemoan), the depth in net is no better.
If Yzerman calls up Tokarski now and he falters, where does that leave the team in 2012-13 and beyond? Does Tokarski get demoted back to Norfolk with a huge public blip on his record? Development can and does get derailed by less. Does this not place the team in the exact same position they are in right now, only without being able to call Tokarski up again? Can the fans trust him again? Can the team? Mortgaging the future on a slim hope for short-term success is poor planning. It's a panic move, and one I hope that Yzerman is able to avoid.
Chad Schnarr finished up with this note on the future for Tokarski, and I think we fans ought to keep it in mind when considering a call up:
In ideal circumstances, Tokarski would finish out the year in Norfolk as their No.1, backstop them on a multi-round playoff run, then position himself to be at least a split timer at the NHL next season. After a half a year in a split tandem, he could possibly be ready to be an NHL no.1 goaltender.
I want to see Tokarski around for a while, in a position where the team can rely on him down the road, and I believe that allowing him time to develop is crucial for the team's future success.