By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
That run Anton Khudobin went on at the end of the regular season, when he won six of his last seven starts, hasn’t guaranteed the Bruins goaltender a spot as Tuukka Rask’s backup in the 2017-18 season.
Rightfully so, Khudobin will have to earn his position, if he’s back. That’s the way the Bruins under general manager Don Sweeney, and every team for that matter, operate – players aren’t granted positions, they have to earn them.
So it also wasn’t a big surprise last week when Sweeney responded to a question about his goaltender situation and didn’t exactly lavish his two goaltending prospects, Zane McIntyre and Malcolm Subban, with undying praise.
“I certainly got to see our minor league goaltenders. Zane had a great start to the playoffs and then he tired a little bit. Malcolm came in and played very well in his start, though he came out on the short end,” Sweeney told the media at the NHL Combine in Buffalo, referring to the Providence Bruins’ run to the Eastern Conference finals. “It’s still a moving target to some degree, but I’ve had some talks in some different directions. As I’ve said, in a perfect world there’d be a natural progress for somebody to come in and assume that position. We’d like it to be internally.”
As the Bruins sort out their goaltending situation this summer, they’ll have to deal with the matter on two levels, the personnel department and the philosophical department.
First there’s the personnel, where they’re almost definitely going to have Khudobin in their midst after the Vegas Golden Knights make their selections later this month. Khudobin signed a two-year contract with a cap charge of $1.2 million prior to last season with the hopes of becoming the Bruins’ No. 2 and possibly impressing the Golden Knights. However, Khudobin’s full body of work featured a .904 save percentage, 2.64 goals-against average, an unclaimed stint on waivers, and a brief run with the P-Bruins before his return to the NHL.
There are too many attractive goaltenders that will be available for the Golden Knights (Philipp Grubauer, Marc-Andre Fleury, Antti Raanta, Michal Neuvirth, one of Detroit’s three goaltenders) for them to waste a pick on the inconsistent 31-year-old Khudobin.
So you figure that, barring the Bruins finding a taker for him in a trade, Khudobin will be back to compete with McIntyre and Subban for the job. All had their share of inconsistent stretches last season. Despite McIntyre’s .930 save percentage in the regular season, he had a .906 save percentage in the postseason for Providence and was shaky in his eight NHL games with an .858 save percentage. The Bruins are going to have to consider bringing in one more experienced body. That could mean getting involved in trade talk with a team in danger of losing a promising young backup goaltender for nothing to Vegas (the New York Rangers or Columbus Blue Jackets to name a couple), which could be costly and would probably require cutting bait with McIntyre or Subban.
Or the Bruins could scour free agency once the top names get signed in July. They might even have to think outside the box for under-the-radar goaltenders, such as former Edmonton and Toronto goaltender Ben Scrivens. He’s reportedly looking for a return to the NHL, and he might be worth at least a tryout in the fall to provide competition and options.
Having options will be important for the Bruins, who seem likely to change their philosophy from the past couple seasons of riding Rask for weeks at a time at the start of the season and leaving the backup to gather rust. This season, their strategy was particularly poorly thought out with Rask coming off the World Cup of Hockey and then suffering an injury early on in the season. Khudobin’s injury obviously rattled the Bruins’ cage, but they still put themselves in a position where they were thin in experience at the position. Next season they should make a playing-time schedule and stick to it. When Rask was rested down the stretch of the season, it benefitted the team and both goaltenders.
The Bruins shouldn’t be in a position where they believe that starting someone other than Rask is equivalent to giving up early-season points. But even if they feel that way, it could be worth it to lose in November so that April doesn’t bring disappointment.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.