You’d be forgiven if you looked at the Winnipeg Jets lineup Tuesday night and wondered who the new guy wearing No. 21 was. After all, Dominic Toninato didn’t exactly burst on to the scene and make himself a household name.
The 27-year-old from Duluth, Minn., who signed as a free agent last fall with the club, has pretty much been out of sight, out of mind all season after coming into training camp in January, failing his physical and having to wait until the second-last game of the regular-season to make his debut.
"We had some complications from having COVID. I had COVID back in November, we had some complications from it. Some test results came back that weren’t good. So we had to be on the cautious side," Toninato revealed publicly following his team’s 5-0 victory over Vancouver.
"Luckily everything worked out and we were able to get back quicker than we thought I was going to be able to."
Toninato has been languishing on the taxi squad for the past few months, save for a brief three-game stint with the Manitoba Moose last month where he scored three goals. But with the Jets mired in a streak of just one win in their previous 10 games, coach Paul Maurice decided to finally give him a look.
"Never crossed my mind that we wouldn’t have seen him play a whole lot of games by now. We just stayed really healthy at the start of the year. He had an injury there. He went down to play with the idea that he’d come back and we’d get him in a game. He got injured a little bit so it set him back," Maurice said.
"It’s not a carrot for him, it’s an opportunity for him that he didn’t get early in the year because of our health and because he got set back at the start. This is an important game for him. We want to take a look at what he looks like with those two guys — with (Nate) Thompson and (Trevor) Lewis."
Toninato’s appearance against the Canucks was the 86th regular-season NHL game of his career — and the first since way back in March 2020 when he was a member of the Florida Panthers.
"It’s definitely been a weird, tough year. Obviously not exactly how I wanted it to go. It was good to finally get the chance. Getting those games with the Moose definitely helped me for tonight. Overall, like I said, it’s been a tough year but we’ve made the most of it. We’ve had some fun with it and got to work on some things we don’t typically get to work on in a normal year," Toninato said of the experience.
Toninato took the spot of Jansen Harkins, who had been skating on that fourth line for the past few games, and played 11:35 with one shot on goal and two hits. Whether this extends beyond a one-game audition to something more meaningful remains to be seen. The Jets close out their season on Friday against Toronto, then open their best-of-seven playoff series next week in Edmonton.
"I thought it was a pretty good night. Obviously it was a great team win. Being able to be a part of Stas’ 1,000th game is something really special. Overall it was a great first game to be a part of," he said.
The Jets hope injured forward Nikolaj Ehlers will be back in the lineup to start the playoffs. That would likely knock Mathieu Perreault to his more familiar spot with Thompson and Lewis. However, it’s good to know what you have in terms of depth, and Toninato can now be added to a list that includes Harkins, Kristian Vesalainen and David Gustafsson who have all played games this season.
On the blue line, Neal Pionk returned to action after missing the last two games with a minor injury. He was paired with Derek Forbort, leaving Josh Morrissey and Dylan DeMelo as the top duo. Logan Stanley and Jordie Benn remained intact on the third unit, while Ville Heinola was a healthy scratch after playing two straight.
Tucker Poolman missed a second consecutive game with a minor injury.
"We can go to Pionk and Morrissey. It makes some sense maybe if you’re chasing the game a bit and you can get a couple offensive guys in behind. We won an awful lot of games for us with Pionk and Forbort doing a real important job for us. We need to get those guys back to that," Maurice said prior to puck drop.
Maurice was asked about whether Forbort, who has struggled recently after a strong start to his season, is perhaps dealing with an injury or in need of a rest.
"I think he’s played like our team. I’ve got a list, there are other players on it, that are under their performance level right now, for sure. At the end of the day, for us to win, we’re going to need him to play his best hockey," he said.
Perfetti gets the call from Canada
He won’t be joining the big club for the NHL playoffs. But 19-year-old Cole Perfetti is still going to get to play some meaningful hockey this month.
The young forward, selected 10th overall by the Jets in last year’s draft, has been invited to join Team Canada at the IIHF World Championships in Latvia. That’s quite a feather in the cap for a kid coming off a terrific pro season with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL — a league he wouldn’t have been eligible to play in if not for the fact the Ontario Hockey League didn’t have a season because of COVID-19.
Perfetti scored nine goals and added 17 assists in 32 games and was named the league’s rookie of the month for April. He will now join a roster of mostly established NHL players from teams that didn’t qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.