When Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice needed a player in a pinch during the NHL's rush hour, he hailed Dominic Toninato from the taxi squad.
It turned into a relatively smooth ride from the veteran winger who'd been parked in a back lot for months.
"I remember him playing against us for Colorado (in 2019), he scored a goal in here at home so it catches your eye and then the name comes up," Maurice told reporters Wednesday morning. "But really, where he became a guy we liked, that we thought could be part of what we do, was in the taxi squad last year. He was just relentless in his work ethic and then attitude wise, happy to be here."
Toninato had a trying 2020-21 season, to say the least, skating primarily on the taxi squad after a stint on Winnipeg's injured reserve list — the result of the linger effects of a bout with COVID-19 in November.
But he delivered in the late spring when the Jets needed him most, playing a pair of solid though unspectacular contests at the conclusion of the regular season and then filling in admirably — when the club had some injuries — in three post-season games, including Games 1 and 2 against the Edmonton Oilers.
Most memorably, the Duluth, Minn., product scored the game-winner in Game 1 on a deflection past Oilers goalie Mike Smith that entered and exited the net so quickly only Toninanto himself raised his stick. But as play continued, video review from up on high confirmed the goal, and the buzzer sounded.
This fall, the 27-year-old 2012 Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick (5th round) is pushing to shed the label of depth forward and replace it with routine contributor with the Jets.
"The group of guys here is tremendous. The coaching staff, all the trainers, all the staff in general are great," Toninato said Wednesday. "I know the kind of guys we have here and the group we have can make a deep run. I think there is some opportunity for me to be part of that and, hopefully, we can make a long run."
Toninato is a dependable defensive forward without much scoring upside, yet his acumen as a penalty killer puts him in the right spot at the right time in Winnipeg.
Trevor Lewis, Mason Appleton and Nate Thompson have all hit the road, leaving slots available on the PK with regulars Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp. Only fearless puck hounds need apply, and Toninato believes he fits the bill.
"You nailed it. There is that opportunity on the PK. I’ve (killed penalties) my whole life. So, it’s something I take pride in and like doing. I think I can jump in and help in that kind of role. A couple blocked shots and keeping the puck out of the net can really help the team," he said.
"I think just growing up I loved being on the ice for every situation — whether it was power play, penalty kill, last minute of the game behind or ahead. It started there and, obviously, you have to know your role when you get to the professional level. I kind of found that as my role and I’m sticking with it."
The pre-season can become tedious for sure-fire roster players, but no meaningless matchup exist for guys on the bubble. Toninato is among a group that includes centres David Gustafsson, Riley Nash, and wingers Jansen Harkins and Evgeny Svechnikov battling to make the final roster.
He said clawing for every assignment has always been his method of operation, from his four-year stint at the University of Minnesota (Duluth) to bouncing in and out of the Colorado Avalanche lineup through two NHL seasons to toiling on the Jets taxi squad.
"It was a tough year and not a position guys wanted to be in. Obviously, you want to play. But we had a really good group on the taxi squad, which really helped. We made the most out of it, tried to have as much fun as we could with it and just tried to learn and keep getting better every day," Toninato said.
"I feel confident in my game but I knew it was gonna be a fight. You just have to come out and give it your all and hope for the best."
Toninato, who inked a new two-year, two-way deal with the Jets in early July, suited up for three games with the Manitoba Moose — the Jets' American Hockey League affiliate — in April, giving him his first taste of meaningful hockey in eight months.
With Florida during the 2019-20 season, he played three post-season games in August for the Panthers in the Toronto bubble. Prior to the break owing to the pandemic, he was inserted into the lineup 46 times, scoring four goals and adding 11 assists in a bottom-six role for Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville.
Prior to that, in Colorado, he chipped in a goal and two assists in limited time over 39 outings (2017-19) with Colorado. Interestingly, he fired his first NHL goal (as Maurice noted) behind now-teammate Connor Hellebuyck on Valentine's Day, 2019 in a 4-1 Avalanche triumph in downtown Winnipeg.
Toninato has committed heart and soul, to the Central Division squad, Maurice said.
"We place a real value in our room now and I think it’s something that you learn – people that are willing to and truly embrace Winnipeg. It’s important. It’s important that guys love being a Jet, that being in Winnipeg fires them up and people like that," he said.
"He’s all in, works his ass off every day. I don’t have to have a meeting with him once a week to see how he’s feeling about his opportunities — 'Whatever you’ve got, I’ll take.' And that attitude, in that role, is critical. We think he can play a fourth-line role and kill penalties for us and be aggressive while doing it."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).