TAMPA — Matt Tomkins never lacked confidence he eventually would make it to the NHL. But when you take a path as winding as Tomkins has, you often wonder when the window of opportunity will open.
“I just had to be super, super patient,” he said. “A lot of patience.”
At age 29, the goaltender finally got his first taste of the NHL with the Lightning. Tuesday, he earned his first win, in Montreal, where his idol, Carey Price, became one of the game’s best with the Canadiens.
Eleven years ago in the 2012 draft, Andrei Vasilevskiy was the first goaltender selected, at No. 19 overall by the Lightning. Tomkins was the second-to-last goalie chosen, with the 199th pick in the seventh round by the Blackhawks.
Now, the Lightning are leaning on Tomkins to help fill in as Vasilevskiy recovers from back surgery.
Tomkins’ unlikely journey — four seasons at Ohio State, followed by another four toiling in the Blackhawks’ minor-league system and most recently two seasons in Sweden’s top professional league — is one of the top feel-good stories of this Lightning season.
“He’s the same guy,” said Lightning forward Brandon Hagel, who played a season with Tomkins in the AHL. “He enjoys every minute. He puts in the work every single day. The story says it itself. The guy’s dedicated. He wanted to play in the NHL. Maybe it took him the long route, but he got here and he’s shown he deserves to stay here and be a goalie in the NHL.”
Chasing his dream
There are only 64 goaltending jobs in the league, so it’s not an easy gig to get. And when you’re a late-round pick, the path is more difficult. As time passes in the minor leagues and you see teammates you’ve played on par with get their calls while you continue to try to prove yourself, it can slowly eat at you.
Tomkins has a finance degree from Ohio State but never really thought about life after hockey. He kept chasing his dream.
“I’ve never lacked the confidence that I can do it,” Tomkins said. “I’ve always felt that I could play here. I’ve seen a lot of different goalies and played with a lot of different goalies in different leagues and seen guys that make it, and I’ve always known I can make it.
“So that’s been a huge factor in continuing to go as well. You know, it’s one thing if deep down you think, ‘I don’t think I can make it. I hope to just get lucky.’ For me, it was like, ‘Hey, I know I can play. It’s just a matter of when.’”
What truly opened the door for Tomkins was going to Sweden. He had spent four seasons shuttling between Chicago’s AHL affiliate in Rockford, Illinois, and the ECHL team in Indianapolis. But he never played more than 15 games at the AHL level and watched teammates like Kevin Lankinen and Collin Delia earn backup roles with the Blackhawks.
Tomkins’ first three contracts were one-year AHL deals before he received his first two-way NHL contract from Chicago. But the closest he ever came to the Blackhawks’ roster was two stints on the COVID taxi squad in the 2020-21 season.
Sweden offered him clarity. He wasn’t living on every outing, worrying about whether he’d be waking up in Illinois or Indiana the next week. He wasn’t living out of the Residence Inn in Rockford, where he spent about 400 nights over his last two seasons in the AHL. He wasn’t worried about his footing in the organization and whether he’d ever get the call to go to Chicago.
Tomkins left North America and recaptured his passion for the game, and it opened the best avenue to the NHL. It was the best decision he ever made in his hockey career.
“At the time, I didn’t know the impact that it would have on my career, and really just my overall feeling and approach towards hockey and my career,” Tomkins said. “I just went over there, and I fell in love with the game again and really just enjoy being a hockey player.”
In his first season in Sweden, Tomkins had his best season as a pro, posting a 2.46 goals-against average and .908 save percentage with Frolunda. His play earned him a spot on the Canadian national team for the world championships and Beijing Olympics, which put him back on the NHL radar.
“The biggest thing that really just got me through was work ethic,” Tomkins said. “That’s all I’ve really known. Just put your head down, work as hard as you can and earn-your-bounces kind of mentality.
“I haven’t been given anything in my career. I’ve had to earn it all. As you start to get rewarded with that throughout your career and you feel like you’re working as hard as you can and you’re maximizing potential, just really, you want to just continue to do it.”
Getting his chance
Instead of concentrating so much on what would get him to the NHL, Tomkins’ focus in Sweden was on being the best goaltender he could be. And that was freeing.
After that first season, he was in no rush to get back to North America, at least not right away. His second year in Sweden playing for Farjestad was equally impressive (2.53 GAA, .911 save percentage).
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who follows his native country’s top pro league, heard about Tomkins’ success. The goaltending coach of his hometown team, MODO, worked with Tomkins with Farjestad.
“I know exactly who he was,” Hedman said, “He was a top-end goaltender. All I heard was great things about him. He’s a grinder, and he works hard.”
Tomkins could have stayed in Sweden, but when a handful of teams courted him last spring he decided to return. His negotiation with the Lightning was short, signing a two-year, two-way deal in May to start the year at Syracuse.
“I don’t want to be retired when I’m done and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t give myself the best chance,’” Tomkins said. “I wanted to come back and do it.”
Once Vasilevskiy was sidelined, Tomkins immediately was thrown into the fire, backing up Jonas Johansson. He’s played far better than his 3.30 GAA and .880 save percentage would indicate. His confidence has carried over to the NHL, and he knows it will only grow with more experience.
“As much as my story is unique, I feel like I’ve earned the right to be here,” Tomkins said. “My journey here has been long, but I feel like I belong here as much as everyone else.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper likes how Tomkins plays a calm, quiet, efficient game, much like Price.
“His demeanor on the ice is very similar,” Cooper said. “I like that in a goaltender, one that just kind of plays in percentages and lets pucks hit him and is always in the right spot. There’s no flash to it, but he exudes confidence when he’s in there.”
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