When the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Chicago Blackhawks tonight, Jon Cooper should start Matt Tomkins. Tomkins is a 29-year-old goalie who recently made his NHL debut after playing his way up from the NCAA, ECHL, AHL and the SHL before getting his chance in the NHL. Tomkins was a former Blackhawks prospect and draft pick who languished in the minor leagues for several seasons without ever getting an NHL opportunity. While Tomkins is a nice story of perseverance, it also shines the light on the Blackhawks’ lack of goalie depth in the past.
Who is Matt Tomkins
Matt Tomkins is a 29-year-old NHL rookie who started in the AJHL with Sherwood Park Crusaders. After playing in the AJHL for two seasons, he went off to college and played in the Big Ten Conference for Ohio State. He appeared in 67 games at OSU in four seasons and started in 58 games. His numbers are OSU were an .898 save percentage and 3.03 goals against average. Tomkins was a three-time Big Ten player of the week and was on the 2017 NCAA tournament team for Ohio State. He was taken in the seventh round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by Chicago with the 199th pick. He was the second-to-last goalie taken in the draft. He was taken eight picks after the Blackhawks’ first goalie selection of the draft in Brandon Whitney. Tomkins would sign a one-year deal with the Rockford IceHogs, while Whitney never inked a deal with the Hawks.
Other notable goalies taken in that draft were: Andrei Vasilevskiy at 19, Malcolm Subban at 24, Joonas Korpisalo at 62, Chris Driedger at 76, Matt Murray at 83, Frederik Andersen at 87, Connor Hellebuyck at 130 and Linus Ullmark at 163.
In 2017 in his first season with the IceHogs, Tomkins went 1–4–2 with a 4.07 goals against average and .871 save percentage. For the majority of the season, the IceHogs loaned Tomkins to the Indy Fuel, the ECHL affiliate of the IceHogs and Blackhawks. He went 11–9–2 in 25 games with a 3.47 goals against average and .912 save percentage. He was named ECHL goalie of the week on Dec. 12, 2017.
In 2018, Tomkins set the record for wins (29) and games played 54 and minutes (3,221) with the Fuel. He finished with a 29–19–4 record, 3.04 goals against average and .905 save percentage and two shutouts. He also ranks among the best ECHL netminders in minutes and second in saves. He appeared in eight games with the IceHogs, recording a 4.04 goals against average and .871 save percentage.
In 2019–20, Tomkins appeared in 13 games with the IceHogs, recording a 3.12 goals against average and .896 save percentage. In his last season with the IceHogs, he appeared in 15 games with a 3.21 goals against average. Once his two-year, $1.5 million dollar contract expired, Tomkins went overseas to play in the SHL. He played with Frolunda, racking up 33 games with a 2.46 goals against average and .908 save percentage. After his first season in Sweden, Tomkins was named to Canadian Olympic team, where he had .962 save percentage in his three Olympic starts. His Olympic showing helped him parlay a better contract in Sweden with Farjestad BK Karlstad.
In 2021–22, he signed with Farjestad BK Karlstad. Tomkins appeared in 32 games netting a 2.53 goals against average and .911 save percentage. This season, Tomkins had an opportunity to stay in SHL for money but decided to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning on a two-way contract.
He signed with Tampa under no false pretense; he knew he would be starting with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. But, an injury to Vasilevskiy gave Tomkins his chance in the NHL. He has appeared in three games this season, racking up 3.40 goals against average and .889 save percentage.
While Tomkins was not a standout in the minor leagues, the Blackhawks’ philosophy at goalie was muddled at best. While Corey Crawford was a fixture in the net for 10 seasons, the Stan Bowman-led front office did not invest in the position to produce a successor in net. Before being removed from his post as president and general manager, Bowman drafted two goalies above the sixth round, taking Kent Simpson in the second round of 2010 and Wouter Peeters in third round of the 2016 draft. Between the two goalies, they posted one NHL appearance.
While Tomkins was in the minor leagues, he produced better numbers than former Blackhawks goalie Collin Delia at the ECHL level in 2017–18. Despite the better numbers, Tomkins was left in Indy while Delia ascended to the AHL and ultimately the NHL. When Tomkins eventually got to the AHL, he was still buried behind Kevin Lankinen and Delia. Lankinen put up a 3.03 goals against average and .909 save percentage. Tomkins had relatively similar numbers with a 3.12 goals against average and .896 save percentage.
When the Blackhawks were “rebuilding,” they decided to audition Delia, Lankinen and Subban for their new starter. Tomkins, who had similar numbers in the AHL, was not even given considered as part of the competition. The organization then set up Lankinen to play against softer opponents and be their starter in the 2020–21 season. Clearly, the front office at the time was set on Lankinen for that season.
After being excluded from the “open” goalie competition, Tomkins was not given the top spot in Rockford. Instead, he still had to battle for time with Cale Morris, Ivan Nailmov and Tom Aubrun. All three of those goalies would eventually wash out of organization and be well-traveled minor league goalies with worse numbers than Tomkins. Currently, Morris is playing in the ECHL, Nailmov is in the KHL and Aubrun is playing in France.
The bottom line is this, the Blackhawks never gave Tomkins a fair shot to start a game in the NHL for their organization. After a long road and many nights in the Residence Inn in Rockford, Tomkins has earned the right to try and beat the organization that never gave him a chance. Cooper and Lightning need to give him that chance.