In the world of professional hockey, Toronto was the land of opportunity last spring.

With the downtrodden NHL franchise, then and now, very much in rebuilding mode with plenty of roster spots up for grabs, a number of players jumped at the chance to join the Maple Leafs, including three Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs.

Sophomore goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo was the first to join the Leafs, citing the ability to compete for a spot right away as a reason he left UMD early. Seniors Willie Corrin and Tony Cameranesi quickly followed and, at one point, it seemed as if Dominic Toninato was ready to seize the moment as well.

“It’s a good opportunity in that organization. They have a fit for me. They like what they see out of me. It’s a great spot to develop,” said Toninato, the Duluth native who was taken by the Leafs in the fifth round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. “They have a great staff and I’d be able to work with them and get better there.

“They are a young team and they are rebuilding from everything. There is a lot of opportunity there and I want to be a part of their upward climb.”

It took him a little longer than teammates Alex Iafallo and Carson Soucy, but in the end, Toninato decided this spring he’d join the Leafs’ upward climb at a later date and committed to returning to the Bulldogs for his senior season.

Toninato isn’t just returning to play hockey at UMD this season, however. He’s back to captain the school he grew up cheering for while skating at Portman Park for the Portman Bruins, and later at Heritage Center for Duluth East.

Toninato said the Leafs didn’t pressure him one way or another on whether to go back to college or turn pro. It was his decision and one the Leafs respected, he said.

“It was definitely one of the hardest decisions I faced in my life. It was a huge decision,” Toninato said. “I think I made the right decision. I was weighing out the pros and cons and what was best for myself. I had to get selfish there.

“It was just a wave of emotions going from stressful, to exciting, to ‘What do I do?’ I think I made the right decision.”

Toninato helped lead the Greyhounds to three straight appearances in the Minnesota state tournaments at Xcel Energy Center from 2010-12, including the 2011 Class AA state championship game as a junior when East lost 3-2 to Eden Prairie in triple overtime.

Now he’s trying to do something similar for the Bulldogs and get the program a third straight NCAA tournament berth. Toninato’s also trying to get his team over the hump of back-to-back heartbreaking losses in region finals.

Two seasons ago in the Northeast Regional final, the Bulldogs gave up a power-play goal late in the third period to Boston University to fall 3-2. Back in the Northeast Regional final last season against Boston College, UMD watched its late third-period rally swatted off the goal line in the final seconds, resulting in another 3-2 defeat.

Both of those results have fueled Toninato’s urge to get the season started sooner rather than later, and that wish will be granted this weekend when the Bulldogs begin this season a week earlier than years past, hosting Michigan Tech at 7 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at Amsoil Arena. It’s a key nonconference series that could have NCAA tournament implications come March when the field of 16 is announced. And it’s happening the first two days teams are officially allowed to conduct full practices and play games.

“For me and probably the upperclassmen, it’s nice to just get going and start right away,” Toninato said. “For the freshmen, that (exhibition) does kind of help to get a feel for things, playing at Amsoil and all that stuff.

“Summer goes by pretty quick, but right when (the season) ends, you want to get going again. It’s nice to get a little break there, but I’m definitely ready to go with some unfinished business.”

Toninato, who spent the 2012-13 season with the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League before joining UMD, posted seven goals and eight assists as a freshman and then almost doubled his offensive output with 16 goals and 10 assists as a sophomore.

As a junior, Toninato’s scoring numbers dipped slightly to 15 goals and six assists. His penalty minutes, meanwhile, dipped significantly from 51 and 58 his first two seasons to just 36 a year ago.

While the drop in penalty minutes may seem like a positive step for a player to take, especially on their path to becoming a captain, Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin disagrees in Toninato’s case. Sandelin wants to see an emotional Toninato on the ice, even if it means a few extra penalties.

“He optimizes how I like guys to play. He’s competitive. He’ll get to the hard areas. His motor is always going, almost to a fault sometimes. I like the way he plays,” Sandelin said. “I don’t mind the emotional part of it. Some guys need to have more of that. As he gets older, he’ll learn how to control that. I think last year was an example of that. He needs that to be effective. He needs that part of his game to be good. When he gets away from that, then he’s probably not as good.”

Toninato may have kept his emotions in check on the ice last season, but off the ice in postgame interviews, he didn’t hold back. He wasn’t afraid to hold himself or his teammates accountable when times were tough, like after costly road losses at Northern Michigan and Bemidji State.

That’s the type of leader senior defenseman Carson Soucy has always known, saying even as freshmen Toninato was the leader of the young Bulldogs.

“He’s been growing constantly since he’s been here,” Soucy said. “The way he takes control over the guys and in the locker room, if he needs to lift the guys up or if he needs to be harder on someone, he’ll do that.

“He’s always been outspoken. He’s always said what’s on his mind and what needs to be said.”

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