By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
MIDDLETON (CBS) — Tuukka Rask may not pay much attention to columns and gossip, but 11 seasons in the Bruins organization has taught him about the Boston media.
So he has a feeling he knows what’s being said and written about the Bruins’ addition of Jaroslav Halak via free agency to replace Anton Khudobin.
“There’s always competitive situation, and I’m sure you guys are trying to raise some controversy out of that too,” Rask said before teeing off in the Shawn Thornton Foundation charity golf tournament at Ferncroft Country Club on Monday.
Despite some pundits and sports-radio callers’ desires, Rask isn’t running away from the challenge of maintaining his No. 1 goaltender status in light of Halak’s arrival in Boston. The 33-year-old Halak has No. 1 goaltender experience, managed to have a .908 save percentage behind a porous New York Islanders defense last season and is probably the goaltender with the best pedigree to call the spot behind Rask on the depth chart home since Tim Thomas’ injury-plagued 2009-10 season.
Ever the team player (unlike many egocentric goaltenders), Rask knows Halak is coming to the Bruins primarily to make sure they’re an improved hockey club that can do better than their second-round playoff loss of last season.
“So we’ll see how it goes,” Rask said. “But every year we kind of start from zero and I think the goal for every team is to have two good goaltenders and then see how it plays out. And you kind of spread out the playing time between both of them and then hope going into the playoffs everybody’s fresh and ready to go. I think it’s great that your team has the luxury to have two good goaltenders.”
After averaging 66 games played the prior three seasons, Rask played just 54 last season and compiled a .917 save percentage, 2.36 goals-against average and 7.79 goals saved above average (his best GSAA since 2014-15). He had a shaky start to the season but after a brief stint as Khudobin’s backup, Rask went on a run of 21 straight games earning points in the standings (19-0-2).
Rest and competition combined to revitalize Rask, who turned 31 in March. Khudobin had a bounce-back season with a 2.56 GAA and .915 save percentage. If he plays up to expectations, Halak should beat Khudobin’s numbers and give coach Bruce Cassidy the leeway to rest Rask even more to make sure he’s fresh for the playoffs. Rask embraces the two-goalie model that allows him to not carry an enormous amount of the workload.
“I think it gives you a little benefit mentally that you know that you’re not going to play 15 games in a row and kind of spend the energy early on in the season,” Rask said. “So that helps mentally I guess.
“But then again you have to be worth the playing time, you have to deserve every minute you get. And that doesn’t change, you still have to work and be worth of the trust.”
The Bruins will need to trust both goaltenders because they’re unlikely to cruise through the second half of the regular season again, knowing basically where they’re going to finish in the standings from early March on. Their cushy positioning allowed Cassidy to strictly stick to his goalie schedule. A more competitive Atlantic Division race could complicate matters, so both goaltenders will have to be at the top of their games and ready to play regardless of the stakes on a certain night.
This Bruins goaltending duo could be the envy of the NHL if Rask and Halak push each other and find their grooves at the same time. And there’s no doubt the Atlantic Division will be tougher, with the Tampa Bay Lightning keeping their core together and the Toronto Maple Leafs adding John Tavares to their mix.
“You look at Toronto, they have great offense and we’re going to face them four, five, six times,” Rask said. “It’s challenging but it’s great for the value of the game. But I’m just out there trying to stop the puck, so it doesn’t matter who’s on the other side.”
It may not matter to Rask who’s firing the puck his way, but history has proven he’s at his best when the identity of his goaltending partner is someone with the ability to challenge him for playing time and spell him when the Bruins want to rest their No. 1.
That’s why there will only be a controversy if Rask doesn’t thrive in the beneficial environment the Bruins have placed him.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.