By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Tuukka Rask’s place in Boston sports is more complicated than it should be. The reality is he’s one of the best goalies in NHL history, and he’s the best goalie in Bruins history. But the team never won a Stanley Cup during his tenure as the starter, a reality for which he’s borne the brunt of the blame for nearly a decade.
As such, the invocation of the name Tuukka Mikael Rask always stirs emotions to a point where productive conversations become impossible.
Nevertheless, let’s try.
The news on Thursday — that Rask signed a PTO and will begin playing in games for the AHL Providence Bruins this weekend — was a long time coming. Rask has been working out at the Bruins’ training facility since early November. He said prior to undergoing surgery that he’d be healthy around the new year, and that he only wanted to play for the Bruins. Boston GM Don Sweeney indicated all along that the door would be open for his return. So here we are. Just as planned.
And while adding an all-time talent like Rask certainly makes sense from a long-term perspective, one can’t help but wonder how the Bruins will be demonstrably better this season with Rask in between the pipes.
For one thing, it makes Sweeney look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. On day one of free agency, the GM threw a four-year, $20 million offer to Linus Ullmark — a deal which included a full no-movement clause for the first two years, and a limited no-trade clause for the final two. That in and of itself isn’t a roster-crippling contract, but it was still a high price to pay (Ullmark carries the 13th-highest cap hit among goaltenders this season) and involved a long-term dedication (he’s one of just 14 goalies under contract for the 2024-25 season) that makes the signing of Rask — a move that seemed to always have been an inevitably all along — a bit of an issue.
Sweeney also dealt away young netminder Daniel Vladar, who’s 5-1-1 with a .928 save percentage, 2.10 GAA, and two shutouts as Jacob Markstrom’s backup for the Flames this year. With a $750,000 cap hit, the Flames are getting tremendous value out of the young goalie. The Bruins only got a third-round pick.
Fortunately for Sweeney, the Ullmark signing didn’t shake the confidence of the young Jeremy Swayman. Sweeney and the front office clearly had some misgivings about making the 23-year-old with 10 games of NHL experience their No. 1 guy, hence the signing of Ullmark. But Swayman’s been largely unaffected by that lack of organizational confidence, as he’s been the better of the two goalies this season.
Swayman’s reward? A demotion to Providence.
Of course, Swayman’s game isn’t fully polished yet. And with only nine games of AHL experience under his belt, Swayman can continue to develop in the minors for the time being. And he’s almost certainly get some run with the NHL club again during the insanely crowded portions of Boston’s schedule. The demotion is not the end of the world — not for Swayman, not for the team.
At the same time … in what world is it a good thing to be sending a goalie with a .920 save percentage and a 2.20 GAA to the minors in a year when they team is ostensibly trying to compete for a Cup?
Among goalies with at least 15 starts, Swayman ranks sixth in the NHL in GAA, 13th in save percentage, 13th in even strength save percentage and ninth in power play save percentage. He’s having an excellent rookie season, yet because the 28-year-old Ullmark has a no-movement clause and is long past his own AHL days, it’ll be Swayman heading down in all likelihood.
Even with that established, it’s not as if Ullmark has been a problem. If we drop the parameters to NHL goalies with 14 starts on the year, Ullmark ranks 16th in save percentage (.917), 15th in GAA, and 16th in even strength save percentage. Getting a league-average goalie on a $20 million contract may not have been the intended goal, but has been a lot better in his last eight starts (6-2-0 record, .927 save percentage, 2.26 GAA) than he was in his first six (3-3-0 record, .903 save percentage, 3.01 GAA).
Combined, Swayman and Ullmark are backstopping a team that allows the sixth-fewest goals per game. Swayman and Ullmark are seeing the fourth-fewest shots per game in the league.
All of that is to say, when looking at the fourth-place Boston Bruins, goaltending isn’t what’s holding them back.
As was the case last year, a lack of scoring is hurting the Bruins. They’ve seen a relative explosion in scoring since resuming play after the holiday break, with 14 goals in three games. Yet they still rank 18th in the NHL with 2.9 goals per game.
Generating shots isn’t an issue — the Bruins get 35.9 shots on goal per game, second-most in the league. Finishing, however, is a big one.
Boston skaters have a combined 8.1 shooting percentage, the seventh-worst mark in the NHL.
While David Pastrnak is likely to start pouring in some goals, the Bruins nevertheless are once again overly reliant on their best three players to score all of their goals. Taylor Hall isn’t half as productive as he was with David Krejci centering him a year ago. Charlie Coyle (eight goals) has snapped out of his 2020-21 slump, and Charlie McAvoy (five goals) is finally letting it rip a bit more freely, but the lack of secondary scoring remains a perpetual issue for Bruce Cassidy’s club.
Free-agent additions Erik Haula, Nick Foligno and Tomas Nosek have combined to score six goals on 118 shots, good for a shooting percentage of 5.1. They weren’t brought in to be 30-goal scorers, but finishing remains an issue among the free-agent crop.
Add in a power play that ranks 29th in the league with an anemic 7.1 percent success rate since the start of November (they’re 3-for-26 in that span), and it’s unquestionable that a lack of offense is what’s keeping the Bruins from sustaining any sort of lengthy winning streaks this season.
Of course, a top-flight forward isn’t simply available to the Bruins at this moment in time in the way that Rask is. They’re not in a one-or-the-other situation, necessarily. But adding Rask right now still doesn’t feel like a needle-mover in terms of really elevating the Bruins to the level that most fans would prefer them to be at.
And, admittedly with the power of retrospect, one can’t help but wonder what the Bruins could have done in free agency if their cap hit for a Swayman-Vladar duo tallied a total of $1.675 million instead of the $5.925 million dedicated to the Ullmark-Swayman combo. While betting on Vladar would have been a leap, the reality is that Rask was always going to be returning. That was no secret. Yet instead of addressing a need up front, the Bruins tossed big money and long term at Ullmark as soon as it was possible to do so.
And now they’re a better-than-mediocre team in search of more scoring. Again.
(If Vladar was deemed too risky, surely Jaroslav Halak could’ve been kept. He’s costing Vancouver $1.5 million this year and has given them reliably Halakian numbers: 7-1-4 record, .915 save percentage, 2.59 GAA.)
It is possible that Rask ends up playing at an all-world level. Boston has seen that happen before, with Tim Thomas returning from hip surgery at age 36 and going on an unbelievable run for a couple of seasons, winning a Vezina, a Cup, and a Conn Smythe in the process. Rask is two years younger and has much more NHL success and stability in his past than Thomas did entering the 2010-11 season.
So, for as much as his statistical drop-off last year looked like it could be the beginning of a late-career decline, there is organizational evidence that Rask — the owner of the third-best regular-season save percentage and fourth-best postseason save percentage (minimum 50 starts) in NHL history — can reestablish himself as a premier goalie in the NHL, this year and beyond.
It’s just not clear if that can make any difference in the present. It’s likewise unclear if and how all three goalies could possibly fit in to the future plans, considering the Ullmark contract and Swayman establishing himself as a legitimate NHL goaltender.
In the meantime, after a quick AHL tune-up, the franchise’s all-time leader in wins and save percentage will be back sooner than later. He’ll be rejoining a Bruins team that wasn’t as good as its second-round playoff opponent last year, and a Bruins team that has gotten worse in the interim.
It’s always beneficial to add good players. It’s just difficult to see this one making any remarkable difference for the Bruins this season.