CRANBERRY, Pa. -- I think more than a few people were surprised to see goaltender Dustin Tokarski end up in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on an AHL deal this season.
Tokarski, 30, is entering his 11th professional season. He's played in 34 NHL games in his career with the Lightning, Canadiens, and Ducks, with a career .904 save percentage and 2.84 goals-against average, having last appeared in an NHL game in 2016-17 with the Ducks. He's coming off of a clutch Calder Cup championship-winning performance with the Charlotte Checkers last season, where he went 7-0 to finish the regular season, posting a 1.14 goals-against average and a .956 save percentage. He played in five postseason games for the Checkers last season, recording a 5-0 record, and a 1.74 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage as the Checkers
Surely, he could have received offers for an NHL contract elsewhere with that resume. Right?
I asked Tokarski about it during the Penguins' training camp, and he said that he did receive offers for NHL contracts elsewhere, but ultimately decided to sign an AHL deal with Wilkes-Barre just for the chance to be in the Penguins organization.
"It's the Pittsburgh Penguins, it kind of speaks for itself," he told me. "The history, the talent level here, the Cups they've won in the past. It's a great winning environment to come to."
A major selling point for Tokarski was also Pittsburgh's hiring of Mike Vellucci, who Tokarski played for last season in Charlotte, as the head coach of Wilkes-Barre.
"He loves to win, and so do I," Tokarski said of Vellucci. "That's a good mix right there. He's a player's coach, he's approachable. He's a winner and a good person."
Tokarski, entering his 11th professional season, seems poised to take on a veteran role on Wilkes-Barre, and will likely share the net with one of the two young goaltenders making their North American professional debuts this season, Emil Larmi and Alex D'Orio. It's a role Tokarski is looking forward to taking on.
"That's part of being a pro, being a veteran," he said. "I was a young guy coming into the league once, too. If I can help them become a pro, and help their game, I'm definitely going to do that. ... I'm going to try to let my calm demeanor, veteran presence do the talking for itself. Stay humble, work hard, and let my work ethic and talent do the talking."
If the Penguins move a goaltender in a trade, Tokarski is the logical option to be signed to an NHL contract and be the new No. 3 goaltender.
"I think there's an opportunity here, even though I'm currently on an AHL deal," he told me. "I know things can change fast, and I just have to work on my game, focus on what I can control, and the rest can take care of itself. ... We'll see where the chips fall, but I'm just going day-by-day, working hard, getting to know the people, and being a good presence out there."