If you thought Tuukka Rask was a polarizing figure the past 12 seasons while he was in uniform for the Bruins, just wait until he spends the next half of a season (or more) outside the organization while rehabilitating his surgically repaired hip for a potential return to the Boston lineup.
Rask’s return seems to be in general manager Don Sweeney’s plan for Boston’s goaltending in the 2021-22 season. The beginning of that plan is to lean on the duo of newly signed Linus Ullmark and rookie Jeremy Swayman.
It’s a goalie controversy before the Bruins hold their summer development camp, never mind training camp or the start of the season. And it’s going to be juicy here, where the only goalie controversy the past decade was whether you were in Rask’s camp or you were delusional enough to believe Martin Jones could’ve helped the Bruins accomplish what they did with Rask in net.
There are many risks involved in what Sweeney did with his goaltending Wednesday on the first day of free agency. First off, four years at $5 million per season for Ullmark, who has two years of NHL experience at 27 years old, is a gamble. People haven’t stopped squawking about paying Rask $7 million, a deal he signed just before winning the Vezina Trophy. Now for $2 million less they’re bringing in a guy who’s been under siege in Buffalo.
You can point to Ullmark’s respectable numbers (.912 career save percentage, 5.4 and 5.5 goals saved above average each of the past two seasons) on scrubby teams. But you have to also take into account he’s never played in a pressure environment in the NHL. Coming to Boston is going to be like going from Buffalo to, well, Boston! And there’s going to be the challenge from Swayman. And then to cap it off Sweeney’s going to dangle the possible return of Rask over him. (For what it’s worth Sweeney put a positive spin on potentially having three goalies for the playoffs, especially as injury insurance.)
Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa has worked wonders with Rask, Tim Thomas, and Jaroslav Halak, who actually had poor underlying numbers with the New York Islanders before he escaped their porous defense and turned around the narrative of his career at 33 with the Bruins. Halak, though, had a track record as a former No. 1 in the NHL. Ullmark has basically been playing glorified AHL hockey since he was elevated from the actual AHL to the franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since Paul Gaustad was considered a good player.
Ullmark will probably be fine. Or Swayman might beat him out and be the No. 1. That’s all well and good, and then we can worry about whether the Bruins have enough secondary scoring (heard that one before) or enough bulk on defense (again, different year, same old song). But what the Bruins really don’t need is the spirit of Tuukka Rask circling their crease every time there’s a bad goal allowed or a losing streak that lasts more than three games.
Because look at it this way: if the Ullmark/Swayman experiment works, why would you want to mess with that by introducing a soon-to-be-35-year-old Rask, with a repaired hip, more than half a year removed from playing in the NHL, and wavering on whether he wants to ever play again, into the picture?
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By the same token, if Ullmark/Swayman flops, why would Rask want to enter the picture as some sort of savior when he’s coming off injury and there might not be anything to salvage. After all, we don’t know how Ullmark will respond to playing NHL games that mean something even as early as November and December. And for all the greatness we saw from Swayman last season and can predict for him for the future, the road to an illustrious NHL career is sprayed with the rotted corpses of goalies that suffered sophomore jinxes and rebounded (and ones that didn’t). Can you hear me Carter Hart?
All these goalie machinations, which also include the trade of Dan Vladar to Calgary for a third-round draft pick, come as the veteran core grows older, as David Krejci continues to weigh his options (leaving the Bruins without a legit No. 2 center) and Charlie McAvoy sits by licking his chops for his $9 million contract extension.
This might not have been the best time to take such a major risk with the goaltending. Braden Holtby or Jonathan Bernier might’ve been a better placeholder for Rask/mentor for Swayman. Maybe Philipp Grubauer would’ve made sense as the long-term No. 1/1A with Swayman, if Boston was willing to cut ties with Rask once and for all. But it’s almost as though the Bruins are worried that Rask, who has said he only wants to play in Boston, might show up elsewhere and make them look bad.
If the Bruins have faith in the Ullmark/Swayman duo, though, they should put them in the best position to succeed — a place where they don’t have Tuukka Rask looming over their shoulder all season.