Now that Jeremy Swayman has been anointed the second coming of Martin Brodeur, and he and Dan Vladar are so obviously ensconced as the next Cheevers-Johnston duo in Bruins history, general manager Don Sweeney can check off goaltending on his shopping list for the present and the seasons ahead.
In fact, Sweeney would be doing his team a disservice if he wasn’t thinking about adding a netminder between now and the April 12th trade deadline both because of the present status of his goaltending — Tuukka Rask on a vague timeline to return from an upper-body injury, and Jaroslav Halak in the NHL Covid-19 protocol — and the future, where both Rask and Halak are unrestricted free agents in the offseason.
That’s why a report this week from David Pagnotta of The Fourth Period tying the Bruins to interest in Columbus’ Elvis Merzlikins and Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper, the latter of whom is still dealing with a lower-body injury, shouldn’t have been that surprising.
Although help on the wing and on defense are the Bruins’ more obvious needs, a goaltender could both help paint over some of the current lineup’s deficiencies and set the Bruins up for a brighter future.
In the present, the Bruins need to make the playoffs, and obviously, Rask’s uncertain status puts that in jeopardy. Coach Bruce Cassidy can sing Halak’s praises all he wants, but the Bruins didn’t bring him in here to be a No. 1 — they know he’s at his best sharing time with Rask. They also don’t see a Halak-Vladar tandem leading a championship-caliber team, or they would’ve strongly considered trading Rask in the offseason.
For all the team’s faults in scoring and defending, the Bruins’ undoing could be its goaltending with Halak and Vladar asked to do more than they can handle.
Taking some of the uncertainty out of the Bruins’ goaltending situation — remembering that Rask’s status is undetermined — would go a long way toward relieving pressure on the scorers and the young, gaffe-prone defenseman. Neither Vladar nor Swayman give the Bruins the certainty of a No. 2 goalie with more NHL experience. A proven commodity like Kuemper, who has proven to be one of the best against high-danger chance the past three seasons, would improve Boston’s chances of getting into the postseason and pulling a first-round upset. Merzlikins, while younger and less experienced, showed what he could do in the bubble last summer (.946 save percentage).
In the long term, both goalies present the Bruins with different, but interesting, scenarios. Merzlikins, who turns 27 this month, has one more year left on his contract at a $4 million cap hit and then he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. Most importantly, he’s exempt from the expansion draft. So unlike some available defenseman that would create difficult expansion draft decisions, Merzlikins might cost the same in terms of a trade haul as a top-four defenseman, but he would allow the Bruins to leave their blue line intact.
Kuemper, 30, has one more year left on his contract at $4.5 million. He could be protected, especially if the Bruins are pretty certain Seattle wouldn’t want Vladar over someone like Jeremy Lauzon or Anders Bjork.
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If the Bruins have a feeling Rask isn’t coming back (whether because he’s retiring or wants to play elsewhere) next season, and might be doubtful to be at full strength this season, they have to start planning as such. Should Rask’s health satisfactorily improve in the days ahead, they could even consider moving Halak for a goalie that could help them this season and beyond. But in this shortened Covid-19 season, they wouldn’t have long to balance three goalies, particularly when one has been having such a hard time staying on the ice. While Swayman is probably held in too high regard to be moved right now, the Bruins would have to consider Vladar as tradeable in an effort to upgrade the position, especially if they were bringing in someone with Kuemper’s pedigree.
Halak has been fine, but we’ve seen his game slip a notch, and we know he needs help. Vladar and Swayman bring the uncertainty of youth and inexperience. They might not even be ready for full-time NHL roles next season. The history of college goalies, in Swayman’s case, shows that it takes at least a full season of AHL play to be NHL-ready, even in the highest-profile cases. The Bruins can’t bank on another season of Rask-and-Halak-type performance based on their current 2021-22 depth chart.
With the mandate to make the postseason both for on-ice and off-ice (playoff gates, no matter how small), Sweeney would be wise to at least gauge the price on a goalie that could help in 2021 and 2022 and maybe even pull the trigger on a deal.