Tokarski's Return, Janus' Rise Creates Competition in Norfolk
Dustin Tokarski spent the first weekend of the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2011 training camp in a nice new Lightning cap and standard-issue Lightning shorts and t-shirt, standing at the glass watching his teammates make their impressions on Lightning management. An abdominal injury kept Tokarski out of the Coral Springs rookie tournament, and now the highly competitive start of training camp.
Things started looking up for the former Memorial Cup MVP Wednesday as the Tampa Tribune reported the two MRIs done on Tokarski revealed no damage. He was back on the ice Wednesday morning.
And just in time.
Among those Tokarski watched during camp scrimmages was his partner in the Norfolk nets in 2009-2010 and late last year, Jaroslav Janus, who was picked a year after Tokarski went in the 2008 draft's fifth round.
Janus was impressive in intrasquad games this week, allowing only one goal Saturday - on a penalty shot to fellow prospect Richard Panik - and sharing a shutout Sunday. He was busy both days as his Team White teammates were constantly pinned in their own zone by Team Blue. He followed the puck well through traffic, and though he left some rebounds, he was making the first save consistently while showing his trademark athleticism.
Janus was strong Tuesday in the Lightning's first exhibition game, stopping 17 of 18 shots in a 3-1 loss to St. Louis. He played the second half of the Bolts' 4-3 loss to the Blues on Wednesday, too, not fairing quite as well. Still, the young Slovakian made a strong impression in camp.
Pat Nagle, in his first NHL camp after being signed by the Lightning as a free agent out of Ferris State University in the spring, has also been good in the nets during camp, though he started out Saturday a little (understandably) wide-eyed.
Before camp, and prior to Tokarski's injury becoming worrisome, not many were expecting a lot of competition for the No. 1 goaltender job in Norfolk.
Tokarski was coming off a stellar second half of 2010-2011. Due to an injury to No. 1 Cedrick Desjardins, Tokarski was in the starter's role and running with it. He was the main reason the team won its first two playoff games against the Penguins, and although the Admirals lost the series 4-2, expectations were big for Tokarski based on his elevated play. So much so that when Desjardins, coming off shoulder surgery, was scooped up as a free agent by Colorado, the Lightning essentially named Tokarski the No. 3 goaltender in the organization by not signing a veteran free agent to take the spot.
The No.3 goaltender is not an afterthought; just ask the Lightning's general manager.
"Depending on injury, that third goaltender can be a really important player for you," Steve Yzerman said Saturday. He called Tokarski's injury a "concern" and said the team would "go through the process" with it and "do everything we can to get him back as soon as possible."
Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher wasn't confident Tokarski would be available for any exhibition games, a prime showcase time for anyone fighting for better depth chart position.
The organization saw Tokarski play in preseason games last year, but each year is different. Tokarski' contract is up at the end of this season.
"It's an important year for him," Yzerman said. "And in the event of injury, we're going to need him."
Yzerman said Saturday that if Tokarski's injuries didn't heal properly they could look outside the organization for help.
"We'll see how this plays itself out, but we're going to have to keep an eye on it and keep an eye on goaltenders that are out there going into the start of the regular season. We'll reassess at that point. It is a concern, for sure."
AHL Norfolk Head Coach Jon Cooper thinks that even if Tokarski isn't fully ready, the Admirals will be okay with Janus and Nagle.
"I'm really comfortable with our goaltender situation," Cooper told BoltProspects on Sunday. "Obviously, I would like to have Tokarski. He's spent two full years in the American league, and in my experience many times that third year is a big year. We're really expecting Tokarski to have a big one this year, but Janus has been outstanding in camp and he spent last year in (ECHL) Florida and he came on with us at the end of the year - which we saw drastic improvement - and it's really been great to see the way he's performed in camp. If Janus can keep that up, we'll be really excited.
"As for Nagle, the only thing Nagle is missing is experience, and it's a huge jump to come from college to pro. The pace of the game and angles and the speed of the shots have been a little bit of a process for him. Especially watching the scrimmage (Sunday) though, I thought he was outstanding, so if we can get the kind of goaltending we've been watching in the scrimmages we should be fine."
If Tokarski regains his form by the start of Norfolk's season, Nagle would likely be moved to Florida of the ECHL. Cooper says this would be a positive for Nagle.
"I'm a big believer in 'Go to the level that you're going to play the most.' And that's how you get better. The East Coast League is not the same league it used to be years ago. The hockey's really good and especially for goaltenders, they take longer to develop and for Nagle to go down - if that's the path that happens for him - I think it's great for him. Florida's always had a good team and he'll naturally progress; he'll be in the A (AHL), and hopefully someday in the NHL."
While Tokarski's game took off after he was the true No.1 in Norfolk last year, he wasn't his best in a split-time situation. Even when he first started with Spokane in the WHL, his numbers in a goaltending tandem weren't as strong as when he was "the man."
Cooper, who points out he has only had Tokarski for one year, says "there's probably a little truth to that."
"With Cedrick (as the No.1), when you're not playing as much, there's a chance you're not going to be as sharp. That's a huge mental aspect for any goaltender that knows he's going to be the backup and has to be ready to play once every 2-3 weeks. He's got to be tough. Now, in saying that, in the American League we tried to play our guys a little bit more. Cedric had the nod. I thought he came in and won the spot, but it's good for a goaltender. You have to not only fight to win games on the ice, but fight to get in. There's only one spot in the net and I like the fact that when Tokarski finally got in there and got his chance, he finally rose to the occasion. Again, it's unfortunate that he's hurt right now, but I expect when he gets back he'll be outstanding for us."
Now that he's back, the fight for playing time is on again. This time Tokarski will be battling an injury, two goalies having "outstanding" camps, and potentially another goalie added into the mix.
Tokarski has faced adversity before, and all he did was win a Telus Cup (MVP), WHL championship, Memorial Cup (MVP), and World Junior Championship gold medal (championship game MVP).
Let the competition begin.