Player Profile: Vesa Toskala

TMLfans Members’ Scouting Report

Vesa Toskala was the San Jose Sharks’ 4th round (90th overall) selection in the 1995 NHL Entry draft and is yet another in a line of highly talented goaltenders to come through their system under the watchful eye of Warren Strelow.

Strelow, who passed away in April 2007, was the highly regarded goaltending coach who has also been credited (at least in part) with the successful development of Mikka Kiprusoff (later traded to the Flames) and Evgeny Nobokov (the Sharks’ current #1 goalie). When with the Devils, he also worked extensively with future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur.

Toskala is a late-bloomer and did not begin to play regularly in the NHL until the 2005-06 season. He spent his first four post-draft years honing his craft in his native Finland, then a year in the SEL, and then finally a couple of years in the Sharks’ farm system before being called up as Nabokov’s backup.

Vesa is a butterfly style goalie with extremely sharp reflexes, a lightning-fast glove hand, and very good rebound control. He makes up for his smaller stature with exceptionally quick lateral movement, although on occasion he will over-commit to the shooter and find himself out of position for a rebound. Fortunately, his sheer athleticism will often allow him to recover in time to make a spectacular, acrobatic save. He has a reputation for never giving up on a puck.

Vesa is an excellent skater and increasingly proficient puck-handler (he scored a goal in the SEL and has averaged nearly one assist in every ten games in the last two seasons). It is an area of his game that he continues to work hard on in an effort to provide additional support for his defencemen.

Having gained a spot as the Sharks’ back-up goaltender in the 2005-06 season, Toskala proceeded to mount a charge on #1 goalie Evgeni Nabokov. An early spring injury to Nabokov and stellar play from Toskala saw him take over the starter’s role in the ’06 playoffs where he sported a sterling .910 SV% and 2.45GAA (including one shut-out) but the team was bounced in the 2nd round by that year’s Cinderella team, the Edmonton Oilers.

In the subsequent season he spit the goaltending duties with Nabokov until an early spring groin injury forced him out of the line-up. Nabokov’s play improved during Vesa’s enforced layoff and was strong enough that he would be pegged to lead the Sharks into that year’s playoffs (where they were narrowly defeated in the 2nd round by the Red Wings).

With Nabokov earning a $5M salary on a long term contract and the much lower priced Toskala only a year away from the end of his final RFA deal and a huge pay increase, Vesa was the victim of the numbers game when the Sharks elected to trade him to the Maple Leafs — along with under-performing forward Mark Bell — on the eve of the 2007 NHL Entry draft in exchange for the Leafs’ 1st and 2nd round draft picks, as well as a 2009 5th round pick.

Vesa was John Ferguson Jr’s second attempt to resolve Toronto’s woes between the pipes. In the previous season, the Leafs’ GM had traded one of the franchise’s two top goaltending prospects, Tuukka Rask, to the Bruins in exchange for former Calder-winner Andrew Raycroft. Raycroft played the lion’s share of the games for the Leafs in the 2006-07 season — including posting a new team record for wins in a single season — but there were serious concerns with his propensity to give up very soft goals at the most inopportune moments, as well as with his poor save percentage and goals-against average.

Toskala’s first few months with the Leafs saw him share the goaltending duties evenly with Raycroft, in part because the Finn initially struggled to adjust (as most goaltenders do) to the shooters in his new Eastern Conference, and to learn to work with his defence corps that was also struggling and beset with injuries. However, by early December Toskala had adapted well enough to the team and conference that he was already clearly the better goaltender and had captured the #1 role on the team.

The Leafs did well for the following six weeks until a groin strain knocked Vesa out of the line-up…at which point a terrible string of losses with Raycroft (and even Clemmensen!) in net all but eliminated the Blue & White from playoff contention. Upon Toskala’s return, the team surged back into the hunt and played exceptionally well for the final 20 or 30 games of the season, only narrowly missing the cut.

With Toskala having firmly establishd himself as the #1 goaltender for the Leafs, interim Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher bought out the remaining year of Raycroft’s contract, signed UFA veteran goaltender Curtis Joseph top a one-year deal as a back-up, and appears perfectly happy to go forward with Vesa as his undisputed starter — at least until Justin Pogge is able to establish himself.

Many TMLfans members consider Toskala to be within the top 10 current NHL goaltenders and one of the most valuable assets that the Leafs possess. This has led to an interesting division of opinion in forum discussions. Some feel that the Leafs should hold on to Toskala since a team cannot ever become a serious contender without elite level goaltending. Others feel that by virtue of his play, he will single-handedly improve the Leafs’ results in the upcoming season and thus hamper any chances the team might have of landing one of the highly desirable top draft picks in the 2009 Entry draft. That, in conjunction with the expected high return that could be had for him in a trade, has some fans urging the Leafs to move him as part of their rebuilding process.

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