ROCHESTER – Their first stint together lasted maybe six weeks. Dustin Tokarski participated in Seth Appert’s first training camp as an AHL coach and started two early-season games for the Americans. That’s it.
By late February in 2021, the veteran goalie was in Buffalo, where he would play 42 contests for the Sabres over the next season and a half.
Despite their limited time together, Appert and Tokarski, one of the most decorated goalies in AHL history, quickly hit it off.
Appert said two of his close coaching friends, Jon Cooper and Mike Vellucci, both won the Calder Cup with Tokarski and “just raved about what type of player” he is.
“It’s all substance, it’s not style,” Appert said following a practice last month in Blue Cross Arena. “He’s not the prettiest aesthetically looking goaltender, but he wins and he wins everywhere. … He’s a serial winner, and that matters as a goalie.”
Tokarski, 34, has done a lot of winning. In addition to his two AHL championships, he has also won the World Junior Championship, Memorial Cup and the Western Hockey League title.
His ability to battle and be a calming presence – “He finds ways to put you in position to win,” Appert said – gave his new coach comfort.
Tokarski learned how much he and others enjoyed playing for Appert, who he called a “players’ coach.”
“It was just a good feeling,” said Tokarski, who signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2022. “We kept in touch over the next couple years.”
Tokarski texted Appert during Rochester’s recent runs in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Appert congratulated Tokarski when he returned to the NHL last season.
When an opportunity materialized to rejoin the Buffalo organization during free agency in July, Tokarski jumped at it.
“(We) both had excitement to be in the thick of things down here,” said Tokarski, who signed a one-year, two-way contract on July 1 worth $450,000 in the minors.
Returning to the organization offers Tokarski comfort and the Sabres valuable depth. In the final weeks of 2021-22 – he played a career-high 29 games that year – the Sabres made massive strides, closing the season on a 16-9-3 run.
“They treat people right here,” he said. “With obviously how things have been projecting with how teams are doing both in Buffalo and Rochester, pushing toward being championship-caliber teams and high aspirations for both, it was an exciting opportunity.
“I’m definitely happy to be a part of the group. The youth and development turning into success and wins is cool to see.”
The 6-foot, 204-pound Tokarski played a part in that success. In 2020-21, injuries created an opportunity for him to play 13 times with Buffalo, his first NHL action in more than four years.
“Maybe it was the opportune time, whether it was the right time for injuries, right time for a call-up, you just never know when your chance is going to be,” said Tokarski, whose 208 wins rank 12th on the AHL’s all-time list and 407 games stand 18th.
Tokarski earned the backup job the next season, winning 10 times and giving the Sabres a valuable option to utilize. It was his second full NHL season.
“The volume of winning that he’s done in his career at really, really high levels with high-pressure situations, I think just creates a real internal belief that he’s going to find a way to get it done, whether it’s the NHL, American League, whatever it is,” Appert said. “He still believes he can get it done in the NHL, too. And when he gets opportunities, too, he usually does.”
In his second go-around, Tokarski stands fourth on the organization’s goaltending depth chart behind Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Devon Levi and Eric Comrie.
When Levi and Comrie suffered injuries in October, Tokarski was also sidelined, so he likely lost out on a short recall to Buffalo. Instead, the Sabres summoned Devin Cooley.
After the Sabres sent Levi to Rochester on Nov. 28, Tokarski backed up twice before they recalled the rookie.
Right now, Tokarski, whose Amerks play a road game tonight against the Hartford Wolf Pack, is the starter again.
“I’m enjoying being back here,” he said. “And I really think there’s good things on the horizon for both groups.”