Dustin Tokarski (image via MTBoltfan)
It's been suggested recently, here and there and a little bit of everywhere, that Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman ought to call up goaltending prospect Dustin Tokarski from the team's American Hockey League affiliate Norfolk Admirals--just for a "look-see"--right about now. Get him a couple of games. See where he's at and what he can do. Give the fans some idea of what they have to look forward to in the coming years.
At this moment, however--meaning within the next couple of weeks--I have to think that that's unlikely for a variety of reasons.
The most important reason for not bringing Tokarski up immediately, even for two or three games, is the AHL standings. Right now, the Norfolk Admirals are in the middle of a very tight race for playoff seeding. In the East Division, the Admirals just moved into first place with 69 points. That's good for second place in the AHL's Eastern Conference. More significant for Norfolk's fortunes, though, is that the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Hershey Bears (also in the East Division) each have 67 points and a game in hand on the Admirals. The race is that tight. They don't want to lose their starting goaltender right now.
This is especially true given the way AHL games are scheduled. Unlike the NHL, AHL teams often play their games in clumps. More than just back-to-back, they often have three-in-threes, playing games on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, then hopping on the bus for a long ride home, a few days of practice, and perhaps another chunk of travel time to their next set of weekend games.
This month, for instance, Norfolk played Feb. 3, 4, and 5 away, Feb. 10 and 11 at home, Feb. 12 and 15 away, and Feb. 17 and 18 at home. They'll play Feb. 24, 25, and 26 away, and Feb. 29 at home. That's a pretty typical schedule for them. And keep in mind that the kind of plane-always-waiting, charter travel the NHL relies on simply isn't common for other leagues. [Kind of makes you appreciate what Evan Oberg's gone through a bit more, doesn't it? The man practically lived in airports for a while there.]
In other words, calling Tokarski up to the Lightning for three games (one week, in NHL terms) means that (A) he misses up to three Norfolk games, (B) his backup, Jaroslav Janus, may have to start three games in three days but almost certainly two, and (C ) his team has to call up the backup's backup (probably Pat Nagle), who hasn't played with this team ever. If you call Tokarski up midweek and give him 2 starts, then he goes back and plays at least one game for Norfolk. Doable, of course, but just not necessary.
See, all of this puts Norfolk in a very tough position. Janus, who looked like he had a shot to take the starter's job in October, has cooled considerably and is having trouble finding consistency. He generally plays one game a week (sometimes more; occasionally less). He's putting up an .897/2.98 in 21 Games Played (compared to Tokarski's .904/2.41 in 36 GP). Losing their starting goaltender while trying to solidify their playoff seeding is far from ideal. In fact, it kind of sucks.
And, quite frankly, as an NHL franchise, you just don't screw over your affiliate. It's bad business, boys and girls. The best NHL teams--the ones that stay good for a long time--have good farm systems. These minor league teams, whether AHL, ECHL or WHL, protect and develop the players that will make or break the Lightning in the years to come. It's hard to work with someone who consistently screws you over. More importantly, though, young players who can go through a playoff run learn things that can't be duplicated in any other setting.
And it doesn't matter that they aren't NHL playoffs. What matters is learning about showing up every night for months on end. What matters is learning how to find that extra gear, and figuring out how to deal with the emotions of a seven-game series with the season on the line. They fight through pain. They lean on each other. They sacrifice. They learn about being professional athletes in the minors, and a playoff run in Norfolk will give more than one Lightning prospect--more than just Tokarski--important opportunities that they can't get in any other situation.
The Lightning, meanwhile, have a surplus of time right now. They can afford to wait. Tokarski's not going to save the season. It would be highly unlikely that he'd be traded, even between AHL teams (in which case he could be evaluated in an AHL setting anyway). His contract isn't up until 2013. There is absolutely no compelling reason to bring him up for two or three games right now.
Yes, it will have to be done eventually. But it can wait. It can easily wait until March, allowing the Admirals a chance to put some separation between themselves and the rest of their division. It can even wait until April if it works out that way (the Lightning play 4 games the first week of April). As a matter of fact, it could wait until next year if no time becomes available between now and the end of the season. I don't expect it to, but it could.
In the meantime, he's playing good minutes on a good team. He's developing and getting better. He's doing all those things I said two months ago that he still needed to do. In addition, he's fighting for a playoff spot, and hopefully will get a good run for the Calder Cup out of it. His development is being taken care of.
As for us? Patience, my friends, patience.