Ability has never been a problem for Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Dustin Tokarski. He’s been sensational at every level, backstopping his WHL team to a Memorial Cup and Canada to World Junior gold, all the while picking up numerous personal awards for his strong play. He’s also been splendid as a rookie professional with the Norfolk Admirals of the AHL.

Yet, despite Tokarski’s fantastic looking resume, he’s never really been regarded as an elite NHL prospect. Coming off that Memorial Cup win – Tokarski was named both best goaltender and MVP of the tournament – and a regular season where he posted a 0.922 SV%, he wasn’t selected until the fifth round of the 2008 NHL Draft. The consensus among NHL scouts was that he was the 13th-best eligible goalie prospect. The reason for this low ranking was simple: at 5’11”, Tokarski lacked the ideal size to play goal in the NHL.

The following list shows the goaltenders drafted before Tokarski, along with their height:

Drafted Team Player Height
18th Nashville Chet Pickard 6′-3″
30th Detroit Thomas McCollum 6′-2″
31st Florida Jacob Markstrom 6′-3″
34th St. Louis Jake Allen 6′-2″
59th Dallas Tyler Beskorowany 6′-5″
61st Colorado Peter Delmas 6′-3″
77th Boston Michael Hutchinson 6′-3″
83rd Anaheim Marco Cousineau 6′-0″
84th Philadelphia Jacob DeSerres 6′-1″
93rd Washington Braden Holtby 6′-1″
106th San Jose Harri Sateri 6′-1″
116th Montreal Jason Missiaen 6′-8″
122nd Tampa Bay Dustin Tokarski 5′-11″

It doesn’t take a math whiz to spot the pattern here: Tokarski was the first goalie picked in the 2008 Draft who stood less than 6’ tall. There was nothing wrong with his results, but he lacked a projectable frame.

Even before Tokarski started playing junior hockey he was making a name for himself with the Prince Albert Mintos. Tokarski played for Mintos after going unselected in the WHL draft (and getting cut by no fewer than six midget teams); head coach Tim Leonard recalled that Tokarski had phoned them up as a 15-year old looking for a place to play. He made 42 saves in a loss to Sweden which kept his team from winning Mac’s Midget Tournament, but he was even better en route to the Telus Cup, awarded to the best midge team in Canada, making 61 saves in the triple-overtime finale. Tokarski’s performance in Prince Albert caught the attention of the Spokane Chiefs, who added him to their protected list.

Entering training camp with the Chiefs, Tokarski was just one of a talented group of young goaltenders, a group that Spokane goalie coach Denis Sproxton called the best he’d ever seen. Tokarski had an impressive camp; head coach Bill Peters said that he had “ice water running through his veins,” and was impressed enough to keep him around when the season started.

Over the next two years, Tokarski would battle with older goaltender Kevin Armstrong for the starting job in Spokane, edging ahead in 2006-07 before stealing the job outright in his draft year. He was brilliant, setting all sorts of franchise records en route to the Memorial Cup win. Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News called him “possibly the best goalie in the draft” and Gare Joyce of ESPN described Tokarski this way:

Tokarski, 17, was the key player for the Spokane Chiefs, who won the Memorial Cup a few weeks back. Choose your superlative: Tokarski was spectacular, lights-out, unconscious. It was the most impressive postseason performance by a junior netminder in recent memory, all the more noteworthy given that it’s usually goalies a year or two older who are taking their teams to the Memorial Cup.

NHL scouts were skeptical about Tokarski’s ability to move to the next level because of his size, something that obviously bothered the young netminder:

“In midgets, I couldn’t make a team. I tried out for seven teams and finally made one. You know, I have been told I can’t do it because of my height, but I plan to keep going and keep proving them wrong. I think I can stop the puck just as good as guys that are 6-3 and 6-4. People have their opinions and that’s fine. Some people don’t like small goalies, but every time I’m out there I’m battling to try to win.”

One outfit that couldn’t afford to ignore Tokarski was Hockey Canada who inviting him to their summer camp in preparation for the World Juniors. He impressed there, and he impressed in Tampa Bay’s training camp in the fall. After a strong start with Spokane, Tokarski was named to Canada’s 2009 World Junior team, where he started ahead of Chet Pickard, who had been the first goalie taken in the previous summer’s draft.

Tokarski struggled early but played his best game in the finals, making 39 saves as the Canadians beat Sweden 5-1 to win gold. He also posted his best ever WHL numbers: a 1.97 goals-against average and .937 save percentage.

This year, in his first professional season, Tokarski has played in two NHL games but has spent the bulk of his time with Norfolk of the AHL.  He’s played well enough to get a firm grip on the starting job, ahead of 2006 first round pick Riku Helenius (who stands 6’3″) and prospect Jaroslav Janus.  Janus has played well, but Tokarski has been consistent all season and can now boast a .915 SV%, which puts him well ahead of all but a couple of the goalies selected before him.  Tampa Bay took a chance on the small, unheralded goaltender with the great results, and they may have found a keeper.

Check out Raw Charge for a recent interview with Tokarski.