By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — All athletes need motivation. Some require more prodding than others.
If Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask needs more motivation for 2016-17 beyond the two straight seasons Boston has missed the Stanley Cup playoffs, he got some from general manager Don Sweeney shortly after Rask missed the season-ending debacle against the Ottawa Senators.
Sweeney was asked specifically if Rask was untouchable.
“It would absolutely depend,” Sweeney said. “I think Tuukka Rask is an excellent goaltender. Do I think he came out of the gate this year a little slower than we would’ve liked? Do I think he finished up being sick in two times that were inopportune? Yeah. That’s not necessarily Tuukka’s fault. Do I think we had areas that we broke down a little bit defensively with, as I said, newer players? Yep. But he’d be the first to sit up here and tell you that he would like to have made a couple of those saves at key opportune times.
“[Tuukka’s] driven to win and he has been a part of a winning organization, his Olympic experience. We believe he’s a damn-good goaltender and I’m not inclined to give that away.”
Some took Sweeney’s statement to mean the Bruins would be willing to part with Rask in a trade. Those people are partly correct. Anyone running a team that has missed the playoffs two years running has to be open to any and all offers in trades. But we know Sweeney’s not going to actively shop Rask because the GM knows he has to build his team from the goal out, and Rask is an elite goaltender who won’t turn 30 until next March.
Barring a sock-knocking offer, Rask isn’t going anywhere, which means there was a second meaning to Sweeney’s message: motivation.
Rask, who had a 31-22-8 with a career-worst 2.56 goals-against average and .915 save percentage this season, has always thrived on challenges. When Rask came to North America, he often griped about being held back while the Bruins kept him for two full seasons in the AHL. When he got the chance to really challenge for the NHL job, he had something to prove and he won the job in 2009-10.
Rask then battled for that job with Tim Thomas for several seasons until Thomas quit. As an emerging star, Rask then opted to play the 2013 season on a one-year bridge contract so he could prove himself. The result was a Vezina Trophy-winning season that led to him getting his eight-year, $56 million contract. Rask then led the Bruins to the Presidents’ Trophy and Game 7 of the second round in 2014.
But in 2013-14 Rask had Chad Johnson to push him from playing time. Since then the Bruins have struck out on backup goaltenders with Niklas Svedberg and Jonas Gustavsson, both of whom had their ups and downs and never really earned the trust of the Bruins’ brass. The competition has dropped off and in turn Rask’s performance has followed suit.
The lack of an adequate backup has also led to physical issues. Rask played a team-record 70 games in 2014-15. That was cut back to 64 this season but was still too much.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Rask had his worst games at the beginning of the year, when he might’ve been too comfortable coming out of training camp and unable to bear down behind the Bruins’ scattershot defense corps, and at the end of the season when he was playing a lot and was under playoff-like pressure. Rask had 10 “really bad starts,” according to hockeyreference.com, which defines those starts as any that feature a save percentage of less than .850. Rask had five in the first 16 games and four in the last 24. That means he had just one over the course 22 starts in the middle of the season.
“I think everybody felt confident in here that we were going to do it, and throughout the year, I never felt too tired. I always felt good, and I felt like my game got better personally,” Rask said.
He might not want to use the term “tired” but he definitely wasn’t his sharpest this season, especially down the stretch. He definitely has to play better. The Bruins, though, have to upgrade their defense and find a more capable backup. With Malcolm Subban’s development hindered by a major injury this season and Zane McIntyre just through one year of pro hockey, the Bruins will have to shop for a free agent again. Maybe the third time since letting Johnson walk will be a charm.
In the grand scheme, Rask is a foundational player the Bruins can’t afford to lose. Assuming he takes the verbal motivation from Sweeney and some competition from a better backup and regains his form, he’s the type of goaltender a team in “reboot mode” needs to cover up mistakes and help development. Despite his hefty price tag, he’s paid the going rate for a No. 1 goaltender and if you wanted to move him and still have a legit No. 1, you’d only be saving a million or so.
The Bruins need Rask to rebound, but more importantly Rask needs to bounce back. He has always yearned to be considered an elite goaltender and even if the numbers still say he’s in high company the results of the past two seasons have tarnished his image. He bet on himself back in 2013 and won. In a way, the Bruins keeping Rask will be another bet and the odds are strong he’ll pay off again.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.