"I love this place, this organization and especially the goalie coaching," Sharks goaltender Vesa Toskala told Ross McKeon in 2006. "I don't know if I can get that anywhere else. Everything is perfect here."
Toskala’s Sharks career will always be defined to some extent by who he was not. Toskala wasn’t Evgeni Nabokov. But, in a way, he owed his NHL career to Nabokov, and he played in Nabokov’s shadow even for the brief period of time where he was San Jose’s number one goaltender.
Toskala is widely remembered in the NHL for his struggles behind dreadful Toronto Maple Leafs defenses, but among Sharks fans he should be remembered for something else: During Evgeni Nabokov’s ten seasons as a San Jose Shark, one goaltender played well enough to wrest the starting job away from him. That goalie was Toskala.
Born in Tampere, Finland on May 20th, 1977, Toskala was drafted out of his hometown by the San Jose Sharks in the 1995 Entry Draft, the disastrous draft in which San Jose picked six Finnish players they knew little about. But 4th round pick Toskala — and fellow ‘95 draftee Miikka Kiprusoff, selected in the following round — were the two bright spots of the class. After several seasons in Finland and a brief stint in the Swedish Elite League, Toskala came to North America in 2001 and joined the Kentucky Thoroughblades for the 2000-01 season, backstopping them to a division title.
Toskala spent the bulk of 2001-02 with San Jose’s AHL affiliate in Cleveland, though he saw his first taste of NHL action that year. With Kiprusoff re-assigned to Cleveland to recover from injury and get some ice time, he entered a game against the Los Angeles Kings after Nabokov was pulled. In 9 minutes and 51 seconds of ice time, he saved both shots he faced. Opportunity momentarily knocked in 2002-03: Nabokov held out for more money.
Toskala made the opening night roster as the undisputed backup behind Kiprusoff, at least until Nabokov and the Sharks came to terms. Toskala played well until Nabokov was re-signed, was sent down to Cleveland, and struggled in the minors. It was a frustrating season for Toskala personally and the Sharks as a whole. There was an upside, though: the Sharks’ miserable play that year led to the hiring of Doug Wilson as GM and Ron Wilson as coach.
Toskala’s do-or-die moment came in September 2003. With Nabokov entrenched as number one goaltender and Kiprusoff and Toskala both on one-way contracts, training camp was an open competition for the backup job. "I have no preconceived notions, and I'm going to stay as open-minded as possible," Coach Ron Wilson said at the time. But Toskala’s strong training camp and play during the early part of the season forced San Jose’s hand. Both Kiprusoff and Toskala were out of options and couldn’t be sent down to the minors.
San Jose carried three goalies for the first 18 games of the season, and on November 27, 2003, they dealt Kiprusoff to the Calgary Flames for a fifth round pick. “I look at [Miikka] as a very talented goalie and I expect him to go to Calgary and do well," Sharks General Manager and Master of Understatement Doug Wilson said at the time. Toskala was a bona-fide NHLer at last.
Entrenched as Nabokov’s backup, Toskala played 28 games in 2003-04 and posted an extremely solid .930 save percentage. During a 10-game midseason stretch where Nabokov was injured, Toskala went 5-1-3 with a .948 save percentage and helped the Sharks climb from 13th place to a playoff spot. Needless to say, Toskala wasn’t pleased with his role on the team. He was 27 years old, and though the Sharks made it to the Western Conference Final that year, he felt he had more to give. “I've always been No. 1 goalie. It's a little bit different [watching from the bench],” he told the San Francisco Chronicle during the playoff run. “It's hard, most of the time I just black out.”
Toskala took what he felt was his in the 2005-06 season. "We have just as much confidence in Vesa as we do in Nabby," Alyn McCauley said. Toskala started slow — as did the rest of the Sharks — but after the Joe Thornton trade his play noticeably improved. On February 6th, 2006, San Jose announced that they had agreed with Evgeni Nabokov on a 4-year, $21.5 million contract extension. But Toskala was stealing the headlines: he hadn’t lost a game in his last 8 starts. The tide had effectively turned, and Nabokov’s inconsistent play meant that Toskala was San Jose’s starting goaltender. With Nabokov on the bench, the unspectacular but positionally sound Toskala earned a point in 27 of his last 29 starts down the stretch.
The man Dan Rusanowsky nicknamed “The Finnish Horse” was San Jose’s undisputed starter for the 2006 playoffs. San Jose had rewarded Toskala with a contract extension of his own (2 years, $1.375 million per year) during the stretch run, and Toskala played well against Nashville in the Quarterfinals. Against a buzzsaw of an Edmonton Oilers team, Toskala was wildly inconsistent: he looked good in the early going, and then utterly fell apart in Games 4 and 5 against Edmonton.
Game 4 featured an utterly horrendous giveaway to Sergei Samsonov that resulted in the game-tying goal. In Game 5, he was so dreadful that Ron Wilson pulled him after he allowed 6 goals(!!!) on 12 shots. Toskala recovered: he was brilliant in Game 6, but the Sharks failed to score a goal and were eliminated. It was the last playoff game of Vesa Toskala’s NHL career.
"It's a great problem to have," Doug Wilson said on the eve of Training Camp ahead of the 06-07 season. San Jose had two goalies signed to long-term deals, and with a surplus of starting goalies around the league, Wilson couldn’t find a trade partner to accept one of them. So he kept them both. "I always believed in myself that I could play. But I guess that's the first time that I had a chance to play -- just let me play,” Toskala said. Play he did. San Jose strictly alternated between Toskala and Nabokov for the 2006-07 season until Toskala injured his groin on February 14th. The two goalies responded well to the competition, posting nearly identical numbers. Look at this brilliant Hockey Analytics piece to understand just how closely they were matched:
The answer is goal support. The Sharks have scored an average of 3.86 goals per game with Toskala in net. Lonely Nabokov has been asked to win games with goal support of only 2.22 goals per game. Given that these two goalies are otherwise nearly identical the big difference in winning records is solely attributable to the difference in goal support.
If you were around Sharks message boards and blogs ten years ago you probably remember this trope. I was surprised to learn it was true. The groin injury caused Toskala to miss a month. Nabokov got hot and seized the starting job back once and for all. Toskala saw no playoff action; Nabokov generally excelled even as the Sharks fell to the Detroit Red Wings in six games.
From there it was pretty elementary: Nabokov had a no-trade clause, a longer contract term, and was owed more money. Vesa Toskala would be traded to a team where he could entrench himself as a number-one goaltender: he deserved it, both on the basis of his quality play and his positive attitude. So on Draft Day 2007, Doug Wilson shipped Toskala off to the Toronto Maple Leafs along with Mark Bell (remember him?) for three draft picks. Doug Wilson packaged two of those picks off to the St. Louis Blues in order to move up in the Draft. With the 9th overall pick in the 2007 Draft, the San Jose Sharks selected a center from the Ottawa 67ers named Logan Couture.
So I’ll say this: Toskala’s Sharks legacy is extremely strong. He played well here, and his trade yielded one of the finest Sharks of this generation. I won’t delve at length into his Toronto career, or discuss whether much of the considerable blame and abuse he received as valid. He was a flawed goaltender on a flawed team under a white-hot spotlight. Read this Down Goes Brown piece to get a sense of what that phase of his life was like. Anyway, I’ll give in and begrudgingly post the video some of you probably came here to see:
Toskala was traded to the Anaheim Ducks along with Jason Blake for J.S. Giguere in January of 2010. He never played for the Ducks; a month later he was traded to the Calgary Flames, where he was reunited with Kiprusoff, the man the San Jose Sharks rejected when they were forced to decide between the two Finnish goalies. 6 games later, his NHL career was over. Toskala played a month in Sweden, and then retired after playing a season right where he started: Ilves Tampere. I have no idea what he’s doing now. He’s 39 years old. I hope he’s happy, and I hope he realizes that there is one community of NHL fans that will always be appreciative of his play in San Jose teal.
Share your Vesa Toskala memories in the comments!