Dustin Tokarski is the last man standing for the Buffalo Sabres. Carter Hutton went down in Monday night’s game. And with Linus Ullmark out with an injury of his own, the Sabres were stuck with has-been backup Tokarski. It was the first NHL game he’s played in since October of 2016. He hasn’t started a game since December of 2015. But that five-year streak might snap on Wednesday if the Sabres can’t get Ullmark back to health.
If Tokarski does get a start, it’ll add yet another wrinkle to the long, confusing, and incredibly unlucky career he’s had to date. It’s been a campaign marked by tough challenges, limited opportunity, and modestly-strong play. And it’s well-worth a breakdown.
A Timeline of Dustin Tokarski and His Unlucky Career
01/14/2010: First Career Call-Up
Tampa Bay Lightning – 2 Games Played (44 Minutes), 39.43 Shots per-60 (Shots/60), 0.813 Save Percentage
Tokarski’s career started off on the wrong foot. He was recalled to the NHL in January of his first professional season, after a strong start in the AHL. Then with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tokarski backed up Antero Niittymaki while Mike Smith was day-to-day with a neck injury.
In the 10 days that it took for Smith to reach full-health, Tokarski was forced to be brought in twice. His first appearance in the NHL came after Niittymaki let in five goals through the first two periods. Tokarski was called upon to finish out the final 20 minutes, facing only five shots and saving them all.
History repeated itself in the team’s very next game. Niittymaki allowed five goals through two periods and Tokarski was brought in as damage control, this time playing an additional four minutes (for 24 minutes on the game) and allowing three goals on 11 shots. Tokarski was sent down five days after this game ended.
03/07/2012: A Start??
Tampa Bay Lightning – 5 Games Played (244 Minutes), 28.57 Shots/60, 0.879 Sv%
Tokarski made his NHL debut in 2010. But he didn’t get his first NHL start until 2012. That’s… a long wait. Especially for a goalie who became respectable for his AHL performances in the gap.
His first start came on March 8th, 2012 and it went about as well as one would expect. Tokarski allowed three goals on 32 shots, ultimately losing the game in overtime. His second career start, two days later, was also a three-goal loss. It wasn’t until his third start on March 13th that Tokarski finally played in an NHL game where his team actually won. And it was largely thanks to him. He only allowed one goal, facing 34 shots, against a Boston Bruins team that would go on to win their division with 102 points.
It was here that Tokarski got his feel for the NHL.
02/26/2014: New Town, Same Story
Montreal Canadiens – 2 Games Played (103 Minutes), 37.25 Shots/60, 0.922 Sv%
Tokarski was dealt to the Canadiens on February 14th, 2013. But it took over a year for the team to finally bring him up to the NHL.
The hesitation to call up Tokarski would become a bit of a trend with Montreal. But he made the best of his first stint with the new team. Tokarski started his first game with the Habs on March 5th and, get this, allowed three goals in a loss.
Abrupt starts don’t come naturally to Tokarski, who played 38 minutes of another game before being sent back down to the AHL.
He was recalled again on March 16th, faced 29 shots his first career shutout win against the Buffalo Sabres on the same day, and was reassigned to the AHL on March 17th.
04/20/2014: Prove it.
Montreal Canadiens – 5 Games Played (300 Minutes), 30.95 Shots/60, 0.916 Sv%
Tokarski was called up on April 8th, sent down on April 10th, signed a two-year contract extension on April 12th, and then finally stayed up consistently following an April 20th call-up. He sat complacently until the post-season. But following Carey Price‘s historically-scary knee injury in Game One of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tokarski got the nod.
And he played very well. Tokarski was absolutely barraged with shots. The Canadiens defence was horrendous and the goalie faced nearly 31 shots per game. Despite that, he had an admirable 0.916 save percentage. He ultimately lost the series along with Montreal, despite a strong finale, allowing only one goal in the elimination-game.
10/2014: You’re An NHLer, Dusty
Montreal Canadiens – 17 Games Played (1005 Minutes), 30.39 Shots/60, 0.910 Sv%
Tokarski’s solid post-season play was enough. He earned the backup role behind Carey Price for the 2014-15 season.
Finally. After five years of working, Tokarski had finally solidified his worth in the NHL. Unfortunately, that shot came behind both Carey Price, one of the most-durable goalies in the NHL, and the Canadiens defence.
But through the first three months of the season, Tokarski appeared in seven games, including six starts. He faced a much more manageable 28.52 shots/60 and recorded a strong 0.914 save percentage.
He was pretty good in his first true NHL stint! And when the NHL broke for Christmas, Tokarski was moved down on December 19th for a brief two-game conditioning stint in the AHL before being recalled on December 22nd.
In the final half of the year, Tokarski appeared in 10 more games. There, he faced a much worse 31.59 shots/60 and recorded a fairly average 0.907 Sv% under the added pressure.
Tokarski was good! Not great but for an AHL journeyman, he played well-enough behind the legendary talent of Price. But this season was his peak.
11/01/2015: The Fall
Montreal Canadiens – 1 Game Played (20 Minutes), 39 Shots/60, 0.846 Sv%
The Canadiens chose Ben Scrivens for 2015-16. It was as simple as that. Tokarski was waived after camp.
It was an unfortunate blow for Tokarski and he remained in the minors until November 1st, when Carey Price was moved to Injured Reserve. Tokarski remained in the NHL for the entirety of Price’s injury, which entailed eight games. But Tokarski didn’t get to start a single one of them, for some reason.
He did come in for the third period of November 14th’s game, though, after Scrivens allowed four goals through the first two periods. He faced a hectic third, allowing two goals on 13 shots.
This was the end. Tokarski was descending rapidly. He was sent down on November 19th, recalled on November 26th, and sent down again on November 30th.
12/06/2015: Curtains Closed
Montreal Canadiens – 4 Games Played (163 Minutes), 26.13 Shots/60, 0.901 Sv%
Tokarski’s final call-up with the Canadiens came on December 6th. He remained in the NHL for 22 days and played four games in that period, all starts. And the Canadiens were proven in their doubting of him.
Tokarski faced a very manageable 26.13 shots/60 but struggled a bit, with a 0.901 Sv%. He was sent back to the AHL on December 28th but his final appearance with Montreal came on December 21st.
The Tokarski Saga
And that was it. Tokarski was traded to the Anaheim Ducks on January 7th, 2016 and bounced back-and-forth between their minor and pro levels. He didn’t play a game for Anaheim until October of 2016 when he came in to relieve John Gibson, who had allowed four goals through two periods.
The Tokarski story was as repetitive as it was unfortunate. He consistently faced more shots per-game than average but performed… fine, despite the challenge. Tokarski isn’t a bonafide NHL starter but his worth as a backup has never been made clear — aside from a 17-game stint behind Carey Price where Tokarski proved strong.
The cloudiness isn’t going to be cleared up with Buffalo either. The Sabres are absolutely awful this year and have allowed the 10th-most shots-per-game in the league this season. Tokarski is facing a tough challenge in a tough setting. Tokarski came in to relieve Hutton’s injury on Monday and made 33 saves, already facing a formidable task. A start will only make things worse.
Tokarski might be worth a consistent NHL-role. He’s shown good-not-great play in the very few chances he’s received. With Ullmark close to a return, Tokarski likely won’t receive many starts, once again. His career is a long track of low-opportunity in hard environments.