Buffalo Sabres 2021-22 Player Report Card: Dustin Tokarski

The Buffalo Sabres were hoping that the 2021-22 season would be an improvement over the previous season in terms of goaltending. After the COVID-shortened 2021 campaign saw an outbreak of injuries that forced the team to use six separate netminders, Craig Anderson and the returning Dustin Tokarski were tasked with stabilizing the Sabres’ situation in net despite a bleak prognosis for the season.

Unfortunately for rookie head coach Don Granato and company, that didn’t happen. Another rash of injuries and COVID cases forced the Sabres to once again call upon six different goaltenders. Tokarski, who was intended to tandem the starting duties with Anderson, was thrust into a solo act until he too fell to the injured list. It was an up-and-down season for the 31-year-old, as he showed flashes of brilliance but also struggled mightily at times.

Tokarski’s Comeback Tour

The Sabres signed Tokarski to a two-year contract in November 2020. It gave the journeyman goaltender an opportunity to potentially return to the NHL after three seasons of wandering the American Hockey League. Though it may not have happened had it not been for the injuries, the moment nevertheless came and on March 22, 2021, he made his first NHL appearance since Oct. 28, 2016 (a span of 1,606 days). He remained with the team for the remainder of the season and on April 15 recorded his first victory since Dec. 12, 2015 (a span of 1,951 days). It was an emotional day for Tokarski, especially considering the win was his first since his father passed away in 2017.

Dustin Tokarski Buffalo Sabres
Dustin Tokarski returned to the NHL in 2021 with the Sabres after nearly a five-year absence (Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images).

In all, Tokarski wound up appearing in 13 games for the 2021 Sabres, going 2-8-2 with a 3.53 goals-against average (GAA) and .904 save percentage (SV%). It was a great story to follow and the Sabres rewarded his perseverance with the team’s nomination for the Bill Masterton Award. He didn’t wind up being a finalist, but that should take nothing away from his triumphant comeback, as he entered the 2021-22 season on an NHL roster for the first time since 2014.

Tokarski, COVID and Yet Another Goalie Crisis

With his spot in Buffalo secured, Tokarski started the 2021-22 campaign as the Sabres’ backup goaltender and saw fairly even time with Anderson in the early going, but he didn’t stay in that spot for long. Anderson was lost in early November to a lower-body injury that ended up keeping him out until the end of January. Tokarski was given the reins and started 10 games during the month, going 3-4-2 with a 3.72 GAA and .894 SV%. Again, not a very impressive stat line, but considering the Sabres’ struggles with consistency in the first half of the year, not exactly terrible either.

But for Tokarski, consistency proved to be an issue for him as well. He struggled to build on any momentum he created for himself throughout that run, as for every strong performance there was usually a poor one that accompanied it. The problem was compounded when he fell victim to COVID in early December; the complications from which kept him out until the end of January as well. This opened the door for yet another goaltending carousel for the Sabres, as the team needed an additional four men in goal to get by until he and Anderson were able to return in February, upon which they resumed their partnership.

Tokarski finished the 2021-22 season with 29 appearances (28 starts) and posted a final line of 10-12-5 with a 3.27 GAA and .899 SV%. Even though those numbers don’t exactly scream dominance either, they’re not atrocious when looking at the whole picture. And to the Saskatchewan native’s credit, he did have one stellar game to hang his hat on.

The highlight of Tokarski’s season unquestionably came on Nov. 16 in Pittsburgh. With the Sabres facing the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins, the goaltender turned in arguably the finest effort of his career, allowing only one goal on 46 shots along with a number of remarkable saves, as the Sabres stole a 2-1 victory. It was the type of performance in goal that Buffalo fans hadn’t seen in years and drew comparisons to Dominik Hasek‘s days with the team. There’s obviously no comparison between the two, but no matter where Tokarski’s career takes him in the future, he’ll always have that game to look back on.

Tokarski’s Future Look & Final Grade

The summer of 2022 is going to be one of high intrigue for the Sabres. With nearly $15 million in available salary-cap space, the team is going to have to make some upgrades and it’s safe to assume that goaltending will be a priority. As a result, it’s difficult to predict if Tokarski will be re-signed or not. It’s conceivable that he could be brought back solely as a backup if they decide to either promote Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen full-time or seek a new number one. Though, they could also just as easily decide to wipe the slate clean across and start from scratch.

Related: Buffalo Sabres Players Season Report Card: Craig Anderson

Tokarski’s numbers were far from Vezina Trophy caliber, but he gave his best efforts to the Sabres this season and did everything he could to help the team take a step forward. Not all goaltenders that step onto the ice in the NHL are destined for superstardom and it’s possible that he simply fits into that category. Regardless, he had a solid season and Buffalo should at the very least consider bringing him back for 2022-23.

Tokarski’s grade for 2021-22: C+

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