Back in early November, when the Buffalo Sabres signed netminder Dustin Tokarski to a two-year $1.45 million deal, it hardly raised any eyebrows. After all, Tokarski, 31, hadn’t appeared in an NHL game since 2016 in a game for the Anaheim Ducks. He hadn’t played more than six games in the NHL since the 2014-15 season. It was seen as purely a move to add depth.
Then injuries piled up. Both Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton have had lower-body injuries sending them to the sidelines. By default, Tokarski has been thrust into a starting role. The 6-foot, 204 pound Saskatchewan native, has already appeared in 10 games this season and has been a bright spot in a tumultuous and challenging stretch for the Sabres.
Named NHL’s First Star of the Week
Last week, Tokarski was named the NHL’s First Star, sporting a record of 2-1-1 with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.27 and a save percentage (SV%) of .934. For the week of April 12-18, he stopped 128 of 137 shots in games against the playoff-bound Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and a pair versus the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It’s pretty cool for sure. To look back on it down the road and say you had the honor that week,” said Tokarski.
While he had a nice week and it was heartwarming to see Tokarski get back in the win column, it was a surprise he took top honors. New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin played lights out, going 3-0 with two shutouts (though both against the New Jersey Devils). His sparkling .99 GAA and .961 SV% were simply incredible. Surprisingly, Shesterkin didn’t get a nod for any Star of the Week.
Tokarski’s First Win in Ages
Tokarski’s 27-save performance against the Washington Capitals on Apr. 15 was his first win since Dec. 12, 2015, when he played for the Montreal Canadiens. That’s five years, four months and three days between wins. But who’s counting?
After securing the win, Tokarski pointed to the rafters in a moment of celebration as the horn sounded in D.C. It was a nod to his father, who he lost a few years back. His teammates quickly surrounded him. “All the guys were just awesome coming in, and there’s nothing better for a goalie than celebrating with your teammates after a win,” he said.
Tokarski also backstopped the Sabres to a win over the Penguins, bouncing back from a 3-2 loss Saturday with a 4-2 win on Sunday. “Sometimes you just got to go out there and compete… We have other capable (goaltenders), of course, as well, but I love going out there battling,” Tokarski said. “If there is some fatigue, you have to put it behind you because everyone’s tired. The players are playing a ton of games, too. So there are no excuses, and you just got to go out there and play.
Tokarski is loving every minute with his new team. Despite seeing a lot of action, he’s excited knowing he’s back in the NHL, where he wants to play. “If someone’s giving me an NHL start, I’m taking it every time.”
Tokarski Breaks Sabres’ 7-Season Drought
When was the last time a Sabre earned an NHL First Star of the Week honor? It’s been awhile.
Tyler Ennis was named the NHL’s First Star of the week on Dec. 21, 2014. The 2008 26th overall selection by the Sabres had five points (one goal and four assists) in three games, helping the Sabres win three straight games.
Thomas Vanek, 29 at the time, earned the honor on Feb. 4, 2013, with 10 points (five goals, five assists) in four games. The highlight of his week was a hat trick and two assists in a 7-4 victory over the Bruins.
Tokarski’s Long and Winding Road to Buffalo
The stat sheet for Tokarski spans 10 AHL teams and four NHL teams. He’s played more games in the AHL than any active goalie.
While in the WHL playing for the Spokane Chiefs, Tokarski won the 2008 Memorial Cup and was named the top goaltender and MVP of the tournament. He then collected a gold medal while playing for Team Canada at the 2009 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships.
After being selected in the fifth round (122nd pick) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tokarski joined the Norfolk Admirals, the Lightning’s AHL affiliate for the 2009-10 season. There, he backstopped the team to win the Calder Cup in 2012, going 32-11-0 with five shutouts, a 2.23 GAA and .913 SP. The Admirals set a professional hockey record for the longest winning streak, winning 28 consecutive games.
While his NHL debut came in Jan. 2010 when he replaced Antero Niittymaki mid-game, his first start in the NHL came on March 8, 2012, a 3-2 loss in overtime.
After being traded to the Canadiens in 2013, Tokarski played a total of 26 games over three seasons in the NHL. The only shutout of his NHL career came against, you guessed it, the Sabres on March 16, 2014. He then played sparingly for the Ducks, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. While with the Rangers, he was loaned the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL and added a second Calder Cup.
Making a Difference in Buffalo
All told, Tokarski’s played only 44 NHL games since his NHL debut with the Lightning in 2010. For the season, Tokarski has a record of 2-6-2 with a respectable 3.04 GAA and .918 SV%. Since the beginning of April, Tokarski ranks fourth in the league in total saves (240).
“I’m enjoying the ride. Enjoying the playing time. It’s just fun out there,” he said with a smile. “Over the years, you’re in different positions. Sometimes you’re starting. Sometimes you’re backing up. But when you can get in a little bit of a groove and play some games in a row, you just get comfortable and things become more natural. I’m just taking things day by day. Enjoying it and working hard and helping this team put some wins together down the stretch here.”
Tokarski loves the game and plays with no regrets. He added, “If you do the right things, and you put in the work, good things will come of it.”
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”