By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A fun little argument has crept into the Boston sports consciousness in recent days. A peculiar one, mainly because it’s about hockey and it’s taking place in August. But since the argument involves Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, who has become one of Boston’s most polarizing athletes in recent years, it has drawn a variety of reactions from fans and media and they’ve all had some bite to them.
This whole Rask discussion started because the NHL Network recently compiled a list of the top-10 goalies in the NHL. Rask was not on the list, while the likes of Cam Talbot were. It sparked an inspired mini-debate between noted Rask critic Michael Felger and his hockey nemesis, D.J. Bean, on CSNNE. The Rask arguments have continued to volley back and forth, especially between fans and some media members on Twitter. It’s amazing that some stupid list has inspired such a battle, but so goes sports media on the internet in the dog days of summer.
Perhaps the biggest reason why Rask’s supporters and detractors have both continued to dig deeper into their trenches is because they have each been right at times, especially last season. Many are too quick to blame everything on Rask, but others too often ignore his obvious shaky play at times.
The one argument that should bring both sides together is that Rask in recent years has been strikingly inconsistent.
Is Rask an elite goalie? Does Rask suck? On the whole, neither have been true since his 2013-14 Vezina Trophy-winning season. But Rask has looked the part in relatively equal measure in the past three seasons, and it only became more apparent in 2016-17. And it’s easiest to spot his inconsistency by looking at his save percentage, which most have agreed is a fair way to assess goalie performance regardless of where you stand.
Here are Rask’s month-by-month save percentages last season:
It’s more up-and-down in 2015-16:
It was even more of a roller coaster in 2014-15:
To be fair, you can find similar streakiness in other goalies who are universally considered superior to Rask, such as the Canadiens’ Carey Price (.954, .944, .899, .906, .912, .941, .905 last season). But the inconsistency becomes more pronounced when you look at Rask’s performance over larger sample sizes.
Remember the beginning of last season? Rask was on fire at the start, going 10-1 with a .945 save percentage and three shutouts in his first 11 games. He dropped off in the next 12, going 5-4-3 with a .915 save percentage and no shutouts. He really sank over the course of the next 36, going 18-15-1 with an .894 save percentage. He finished strong with a 4-0-1 record, .971 save percentage, and two shutouts to help push the Bruins back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Overall? Not great, not terrible either – but certainly not consistent.
Rask’s streakiness became even more conspicuous in the Bruins’ opening-round loss to the Senators. He was masterful in Game 1, in which he only had to make 26 saves but they all felt monumental. He followed that up with a precipitous meltdown in Game 2, allowing two quick third-period goals to blow a 3-1 lead before letting in a soft one to lose in overtime. He allowed four goals, including the OT loser, in Game 3 and was the tough-luck 1-0 loser in Game 4.
But with the Bruins down 3-1 in the series, Rask came roaring back in Game 5 to make 41 saves in the double-overtime epic, including several show-stoppers. He was absolutely the main reason the Bruins got to play Game 6 at the TD Garden in the first place. But unfortunately, the last memory of Rask that Bruins fans have is him being heinously out of position for the Sens’ series-winning goal in OT. The goal was a team-wide failure, but it was an especially bad look for a goalie who is known for his usually-sharp positioning and anticipation of the play.
Regardless of where you stand on Rask right now, the goalie has become the kind of player where you’re not sure which one you’re going to get on a game-to-game basis. At times he looks like the elite goalie he was in 2013-14. But at times he also appears unfocused and unable to shake off tough goals, which has led to some inexplicable head-scratchers finding the back of the net.
The Rask argument has persisted in part because for every Rask defense, there has been an equally strong criticism. Sure, Rask’s numbers have dropped off in recent years, but so has the Bruins defense in front of him. Yes, Rask has been playing behind a worse defense, but isn’t a $7 million goalie supposed to make up for that?
Rask is inarguably a good goalie, and “very good” or “top-10” is not out of line like some may believe. But the real debate is whether he’s great, or simply worthy of his $7 million price tag. The only way for him to prove that is to return to his Vezina level, or at least play like that on a more consistent basis. Everyone saw what he’s capable of doing in the Bruins’ two playoff wins, but the more he randomly bombs (often at the worst possible times), the more fuel he will feed to his critics .
For the sake of the Bruins and everyone involved in this debate, Rask needs to hit that 2014-era ceiling more often than he has in recent years. He at least needs to cut down on the sporadic no-shows. Perhaps he will as the Bruins defense continues to improve in its rebuilding process, but it needs to happen soon. For the sake of everyone’s sanity.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @Dolloff985 and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.