A perplexing situation: Thoughts on the Tokarski-Desjardins trade

What can we make of this startling development?

Early Thursday, Tampa Bay Lightning and Syracuse Crunch fans woke to the news that goaltender Dustin Tokarski had been dealt to the Montreal Canadiens for goaltender Cedrick Desjardins in a one-for-one swap. I think the consensus reaction on Twitter was something like...

To be honest, that still kind of sums up the whole thing for me. I've had twenty-four hours to think on it, and I still don't get it.

There's no question that the goaltending in Syracuse has been less than acceptable. Tokarski had pretty obviously won the starting job for the Crunch, but that's in large part because his competition, Riku Helenius, has been completely unreliable. With a .900 and a 2.46 over 33 games this year, Tokarski hasn't actually lived up to that potential everyone kept on talking about.

I've been expressing concerns over this situation for some time, perhaps more bluntly in private than in public, but this year I've been fairly disappointed in Tokarski. While there's no question that he came up big for the Norfolk Admirals in the playoffs in 2011-12, his regular season record last year with the Ads was not stellar. It wasn't horrible, but it wasn't anything to cause NHL scouts to salivate. In 45 games last year, he had a .913/2.23. And you have to realize that that's essentially average.

He was expected to do better this season. He hasn't. The areas where he was expected to improve (patience, playing bigger in net, and above all, consistency) simply weren't getting better. He still drops to his butterfly too early and stays there too frequently. And that tendency is going to become problematic the longer it goes on.

In other words, I certainly understand why the Lightning were concerned about his NHL-readiness. What I don't understand is why, outside of familiarity, they chose Cedrick Desjardins as the answer.

Desjardins was with the Norfolk Admirals in 2010-2011. He put up a .905/2.59 in 24 games before a shoulder injury forced him out of the lineup in March. And to be clear, although that injury was bothering him since January 2011, his numbers actually went up between then and March. For whatever reason, Desjardins put off having a recommended surgery until May, which virtually guaranteed that he'd be unavailable at the start of the 2011-12 season:

Preferring to have a backup who could actually play, the Lightning didn't re-sign him and he signed with the Colorado Avalanche instead. He started playing for the Avalanche's AHL affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, at the end of October. And he did quite well, despite being hurt again and missing most of January. For 2011-12, Desjardins led the AHL in save percentage (.932) and was third in GAA (2.11). He played 32 games. But when the time came, the Avalanche didn't renew his contract.

So it was back to the Montreal Canadiens, his original franchise, where he would be assigned to play for the Hamilton Bulldogs. But instead of repeating his great year, Desjardins has struggled almost as much as Tokarski. He currently has a .905/2.94 in 22 games.

This trade has been explained to us as an immediate upgrade both for Syracuse and for the Lightning.

"We felt our goaltending in Syracuse this season hasn't been up to par," Yzerman said. "We wanted to give our team the best opportunity to make the playoffs and do well in the playoffs, so we were looking to upgrade there." --"Acquisition of Cedrick Desjardins bolsters goaltending depth in Syracuse, for future"--via lightning.nhl.com
But, frankly, that's not really obvious on the surface. Tokarski even has more NHL experience than Desjardins, with 5 games to Desjardins' 2.

All of this leaves me with a lot of questions, the foremost of which is: why do the Lightning brass think that Cedrick Desjardins is more NHL-ready than Dustin Tokarski? I don't see it, myself. I look at the numbers and the history and I don't understand what makes Desjardins a surer bet than Tokarski. If this were an issue of style, I would have to give the benefit of the doubt, but there doesn't seem to be a big stylistic difference between the two. It's all very confusing.

Perhaps it's really more of a pipeline issue. In fact, this begins to make at least some sense when all the contracts are taken into account. Anders Lindback, you'll remember is on a two-year deal. Barring catastrophe, he'll be around in 2013-14. Mathieu Garon's contract expires at the end of this season, and I believe it was always the plan that he be a rental. The idea was that someone would be promoted to Tampa Bay next year. Desjardins' contract also expires at the end of the season. No long-term commitment.

So here's one way--maybe the only way--this deal makes hockey sense. Jaroslav Janus and Andrey Vasilevskiy almost have to be coming to North America in the fall; Janus will resume his career in the Lightning system and Vasilevskiy will make his North American debut in juniors (the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL own his foreign rights).

Janus at current is killing it in the KHL, and has been getting time as a starter over there. In the summer, it was assumed that he couldn't get that time in Syracuse. He has a two-year deal with Slovan Bratislava, but he also has an out-clause for the 2013-14 season. Right now it seems like the club is interested enough to ask him to exercise it and come back. Vasilevskiy is also having a good season, and he's already expressed the intent to play in North America next season and have an NHL career.

So this trade essentially opens up the options for the Lightning. They'll have 3 goalies--Janus, Helenius, and Vasilevskiy--competing for 3 spots. (Possibly 4 goalies if Desjardins turns a corner.) Everyone gets something out of the deal. Everyone takes a step forward. And if Helenius sputters out again in the final year of his contract (2013-14), then that opens up space for Adam Wilcox (freshman at University of Minnesota) or maybe Pat Nagle (ECHL Florida Everblades).

In the meantime, they get someone who is at least as good as Tokarski to take over in Syracuse, which provides a shakeup for a team that has been floundering. And he's someone the coaching staff are comfortable with--or less uncomfortable with, anyway.