Canadiens: Dustin Tokarski Returns to NHL as Sabres Woes Continue

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 17: Dustin Tokarski #35 of the Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 17: Dustin Tokarski #35 of the Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images) /

Remember Dustin Tokarski? You know, the guy who almost led the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014?

Well, its understandable if you forgot, or simply never knew in the first place. It’s been a good long while since Tokarski last played for the Blue Blanc et Rouge, and since then a lot has changed, both for the Canadiens and Tokarski himself. It’s been an on and off start to the 2020-21 season for the Habs in general, with head coach Claude Julien being given the axe in place of former assistant Dominique Ducharme, and a remarkably strong start having been categorized by a recent string of inconsistency.

After forwards Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia went into Covid-19 protocol last Monday, all Canadiens games from March 22nd till the 25th were postponed, making for an unfortunate situation in a North Division that had managed to avoid any major outbreaks thus far. In spite of this, it does gives Montreal time to re-centre and try and get this season back on the track, as has been the case with many NHL teams. Case in point, Tokarski, and his Buffalo Sabres.

Simply put, the Sabres have been bad this year. Actually, that’s a bit of understatement. Simply put, the Sabres have been a kind of bad not seen in the modern-day NHL. In the past, I discussed how I thought the Detroit Red Wings 2019-20 season would be one that wouldn’t been seen again for quite some time. Well, consider me surprised, as just one season later, an even worse organization has filled those rather dirty, hole-ridden shoes, and sadly, Tokarski finds himself in the middle of it all.

A former fifth round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2008 NHL entry draft, Tokarski has had quite a few travels since his junior career with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs. After finding time as a third goalie on a Lightning team that struggled behind a tandem of Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson, Tokarski bided his time in Tampa’s farm system, being apart of the 2011-12 Calder Cup champion Norfolk Admirals. With the Lightning struggling through the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, the team opted to shake things up, sending Tokarski to the Canadiens in exchange for AHL all star Cedrick Desjardins.

While Desjardins lasted just two seasons in Tampa before ending up in the ECHL and eventually LNAH, Tokarski shined in a spot role with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2013-14, eventually earning a callup to the Canadiens, where he, as stated put together some immensely impressive performances as he nearly led Montreal to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1993. Needless to say, after his impressive post-season performance, Tokarski earned the backup job come the 2014-15 season, posting a solid, if unremarkable 6-6-4 record with a 2.75 GAA, as Carey Price stole the show in an award studded season.

Come the 2015-16 season however, after a rough start and begrudging demotion to the AHL, Tokarski was shipped to the Anaheim Ducks, in exchange for former AHL checker Max Friberg. Since then, Tokarski has played the role of a journeyman through and through, up until his surprise reappearance with Buffalo this season. Prior to his relief appearance against the New York Rangers last Tuesday, Tokarski hadn’t seen NHL action since a brief 10-minute appearance with the Ducks in 2016-17.

After not seeing NHL ice since 2016-17, former Canadiens backup Dustin Tokarski now finds himself with an unlikely opportunity with the Buffalo Sabres.

Having established himself as a solid AHL backup/fringe starter, Tokarski signed with the Sabres towards the start of the 2020-21 season, presumably to be exposure fodder for the upcoming Seattle expansion draft. However, following what has been an unequivocal dumpster fire of a season for the Sabres, Tokarski now finds himself with an opportunity, which expectedly, hasn’t gone too smoothly. With it having been four years since his last NHL appearance, Tokarski has been rusty to say the least, posting an 0-3 record with a 4.11 GAA, coupled with the fact he’s playing behind the objectively worst team in the NHL.

For a few quick facts just to bring things into perspective, Buffalo has been shut out more times than they’ve won, they’ve now gone 17 games (0-15-2) without a regulation win (including the past eight without a point) and have numerous high value contracts that have flat out not worked out. A close 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Saturday brought all these issues to light, facing a Bruins team who’s roster was heavily depleted following a Covid-19 outbreak.

In what was expected to be a rather unassuming Friday for the Canadiens, GM Marc Bergevin made a bit of a surprising move, acquiring center Eric Staal from the Sabres in exchange for a third and fifth round pick in 2021. While presenting a shaky situation for the Canadiens salary cap, Staal’s departure is one of what I expect will be quite a few from a Sabres team that is dead set on having a fire sale whether it rains, pours, snows, or no one bothers to show up. While past his prime at 35 years old, Staal Is just two years removed from a 76-point 2017-18 season and has proving he can still be a talented offensive player in spite of his reduced foot speed.

The performance of any player coming out of Buffalo come this season’s trade deadline, should be taken with a grain of salt, as this situation quite frankly stretches beyond the players, coaches, managers, owners and even ushers, and again, it’s sadly now falling on the shoulders of an unassuming journeyman like Tokarski. There’s been a few surprise goaltending performances thus far this season, with similar AHL journeyman Troy Grosenick making 33 saves in his first NHL appearance since 2014-15, and unknown third stringer Kevin Lankinen stealing the show, and possibly the Calder Trophy Race, as the surprise starter for the Chicago Blackhawks. Even failed backup option last season in Keith Kinkaid, has managed to put together a 3-1-1 record with the New York Rangers, having outplayed Tokarski in Tuesday’s nights 5-3 win.

With second stringer Carter Hutton out, and third option Jonas Johansson having been shipped to Colorado, Tokarski is now the only available goalie for Buffalo with NHL experience, outside of starter Linus Ullmark. The only others being prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who had just completed his first professional season, and longtime ECHL starter Michael Houser. So yeah, needless to say, the Sabres find themselves in a rather difficult situation, which the Canadiens have taken advantage of, nabbing a useful depth, and possibly top six asset in Staal.

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As for Tokarski, while it would be great if he miraculously regained his form from those 2014 playoffs and led the Sabres to glory, I know just as well that isn’t going to happen, as the Sabres scramble to find a way out of this ever-deepening hole they’ve dug themselves in. While its been an on and off start to this 2020-21 season for the Canadiens, whether you remember him or not, it looks as though Dustin Tokarski, and the Buffalo Sabres, have a much worse situation on their hands.