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The Bruins Goaltending Dilemma: Who To Start, NOT Who To Trade

By Matt Kalman, CBSBoston
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Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) – Bruins head coach Claude Julien probably has a mini-dilemma on his hands right now despite his team’s nine-game winning streak.

His defending Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender has pitched back-to-back shutouts, and three in a row on the road dating back to November 5, heading into Wednesday night’s game in Buffalo. Meanwhile, Tuukka Rask has won his last three starts and is just about a week removed from his last outing against Columbus last Thursday.

In picking his starter, Julien has to factor in the emotion and animosity that’s sure to be on display in the Bruins-Sabres tilt, which will be the first since the Milan Lucic-Ryan Miller collision from November 12. Regardless, Julien really can’t go wrong with whichever netminder he chooses, especially considering the Bruins have back-to-back games coming up over the weekend. Julien can stick to the plan he and his staff drew up, or if that plan didn’t include Thomas starting against Buffalo, he can scrap the plan and ride the hot hand.

That brings me to the larger point, which is that right now the only controversy surrounding Boston’s goaltending situation involves which of the Bruins’ world-class netminders will get which starts against which opponents, and how many more starts will each man get.

At least twice a day on Twitter I get hit with a question or two from a follower worried about what the Bruins should do with Rask, as in: should they trade him? Can they sign him before he becomes a restricted free agent next summer? Is he capable of taking over for Thomas sometime soon?

The answer to those inquiries is really quite simple: don’t worry, be happy. The Bruins have far and away the top goaltending tandem in the NHL. Both players get along and you can’t really have two more competitive guys playing the same position who work better together than Thomas and Rask. The philosophy under general manager Peter Chiarelli, and most of the other 29 GMs in the NHL, is to build from the goal out. At a friendly combined cap hit, the Bruins have done that perfectly.

The idea of trading Rask for a superstar forward or defenseman – if there’s even one available – is based on the false idea that No. 1-caliber goaltenders are easy to find. Sure, you can get a goaltender anywhere. That’s the theory Philadelphia’s been working on for more than a quarter of a century without a Stanley Cup championship.

After Philly-Chicago Cup final in 2010, several other teams began to subscribe to that theory. One of the teams that didn’t buy in, you might remember, lifted the Cup in Vancouver last June.

To play on a popular phrase, the goalies that you know are better than the ones you don’t. With Rask you have a legitimate star in the making who can be your No. 1 for at least a decade once he takes the reins from Thomas. He led the league in goals-against average and save percentage as a rookie just two seasons ago. He’s shown flashes of being that netminder again this season. This is not Andrew Raycroft, Hannu Toivonen and Blaine Lacher. This is a player who’s been highly regarded for years since before he was drafted, barely anyone has a cross word to say about his ability, and he’s just 24 years old.

Obviously, getting him signed might prove difficult, especially with Thomas still filling $5 million for one more season beyond this year. But there’s a new Collective Bargaining Agreement on the way, hopefully before next fall. There’s no telling how that might benefit, or damage, the Bruins’ ability to keep their dynamic duo together. Nonetheless, Rask has to see the writing on the wall. Boston is the place to be. The Bruins have become one of the few organizations committed every year to winning, he seemingly gets along with the coaches, particularly goaltending coach Bob Essensa, and he’s seen what type of hero Thomas has become. Rask must dream every night that he’ll be the next championship goaltender in Boston.

Plus, there aren’t a lot of other places he can go that can both afford to pay him No. 1 money and offer a metropolitan area that’s hockey-crazed. The Bruins could conceivably pay Rask like a No. 1 next season and get by with younger, cheaper players at a couple different positions for a year until Thomas’ deal is up.

Now, if Thomas keeps the Vezina this and next season, or even if he just wins it this year, things could get dicey. There’s no telling how much longer Thomas will want to play, and play regularly, beyond his current deal considering the renaissance his career has enjoyed ever since his “miracle” hip surgery.

If that’s the only dilemma the Bruins have in terms of goaltending – deciding whether to retain a multi-time Vezina winner or a potential multi-time Vezina winner – or keeping both, this coming summer or in the summer of 2013, well then they’re in greater shape than any franchise has been maybe ever.

For now, though, there’s no cause for concern, just cause for celebration. When it comes to goaltending, the Bruins are the envy of the entire league.

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