If Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin has any complaint about Dominic Toninato through his team's first four games of the season, it's that he's not spending enough time on the bench.
"He's had a great start. He's got the goal-scoring stick going right now, but it's more than just that. The way he plays and the positions we put him in, he plays a lot. Tonight was nice because we were able to roll four lines for a while and we were able to play the fourth line more in the third period," said Sandelin after last Saturday's 6-2 victory over Minnesota State, with a third period made more comfortable after a Toninato goal and assist broke a 2-2 third period tie.
Toninato has done a little bit of everything for the Bulldogs this season. Through two weekends of play, Toninato ranks tied for third in the country in scoring with a scoring line of 5-2-7 in four games played. His five goals is tied for second in the nation. He's scored a goal on the power play, and two while shorthanded. He has a +5 rating, which puts him tied for sixth in the country.
Last season, we ranked Toninato as the 55th best NHL prospect playing in the NCAA. Here's what we wrote about him:
Toninato's style of play is a unique combination of power mixed with finesse. He hasn't been a huge scorer in his freshman season, but once he adds a little more weight and adjusts to the speed of college hockey, he has the hands and playmaking ability to be a scoring power forward.
It's clear Toninato has taken another step forward in his development from his rookie season, so I took a closer look at Toninato in Saturday's victory to see where he is at as a pro prospect now.
Toninato is centering a line with sophomore Alex Iafallo, a smooth playmaking winger on his left wing, and senior Adam Krause, a physical grinder, on his right wing. Those are the same line mates that he ended last season with, but their role this year has changed.
"That line was good last year. At times last season, that line was put in position to be more of a checking line against other teams' top lines, and tonight they went against a checking line. That's encouraging for them that they're looked at a little bit differently," said Sandelin.
The home-and-home series against Minnesota State allowed that line to see both sides of that coin. On Friday night in Duluth, Toninato's top line was matched up against Minnesota State's top scoring line(MSU's top line would score once 5-on-5 on Friday, but it came off a quick line change when UMD got caught with their fourth line on the ice against them). Then on Saturday night, with Minnesota State having the last change at home, Toninato's line was matched up against Minnesota State's checking line for most of the evening. It really speaks to that line's versatility that they can be used in such different situations.
On special teams, he plays on Minnesota Duluth's top power play unit, setting up in the mid-to-high slot in the center of the ice, allowing him to get the puck in a prime shooting position, or draw attention, allowing him to make a quick pass to an open teammate for an easy goal, as he did on his power play assist on Saturday night. He's also on the top unit on Minnesota Duluth's penalty kill.
One of the biggest things that stands out about Toninato is his compete level. He goes hard into the corners, and perhaps more importantly, works his way back to the front of the net with the same tenacity, which has helped him score a few of his goals this season. He shows the same competitiveness on the defensive end that he does on the offensive end. He's been credited with seven blocked shots this year, which is tied for fifth best nationally among forwards.
He's got some skill to go with his grit too. He should have had another assist on Saturday when he made a deft one-touch pass on a puck bouncing off the back boards to give a teammate a wide open net. The shot was stopped by an amazing glove save, but Toninato's touch to make that pass was incredible. His shorthanded goal on Saturday night was an absolute laser from the high slot.
On the downside, Toninato is currently playing center for the Bulldogs, and being able to play up the middle would certainly improve his value as a pro, but I don't think he'll stay there in the long-term. His foot speed and skating is just average, and probably below average for the NHL. Saturday night was a disaster in the face-off circle for him too. He was credited with five face-off wins versus 19 face-off losses. He's generally not that bad. He's an even .500 on the year if you take out that game, but it's clearly not a huge strength in his game.
He made tremendous strides in the weight room over the summer, so he's heading in the right direction, but he can still be neutralized along the boards on the cycle a little too easily. In another year or two, he'll really be able to fight through checks and be even more of skilled power forward he's projected to be.
But overall, Toninato appears to have made the jump in development that Leafs' fans were hoping he would make in his second year. He's already about halfway to matching the 15 points he put up as a freshman and should blow well past that mark this year. He's made the transition to being a legitimate first line player at the NCAA level. and a very good first liner at that. He's still a few years away from contributing at the NHL level, he's continuing to show signs that he could be a very good second or third winger in the NHL.