We have already discussed the offense and the defense of the Boston Bruins heading into tomorrow’s season opener against the New York Rangers and you know what they say: If you’re going to do it two times…
To wrap up the season preview, it is on to the last piece of the puzzle: their goaltending.
It was not very long after the Bruins’ Game 7 loss in the first round of last year’s playoffs that then starting goaltender Tim Thomas completed his swan-dive from the peak of folk hero stardom in Boston when he announced he would be sitting out the entire 2012-2013 season. The move thrust Tuukka Rask into the spotlight, setting the stage for the most intriguing storyline of the 2013 season.
What was once arguably the best goaltending tandem in the National Hockey League, the Bruins battery is now one of the biggest question marks. The Boston faithful had grown accustomed to the reliable performance Thomas put up year after year during his seven years in the Bruins net. Since Rask officially became Thomas’ backup in 2009, the Bruins have seen flashes of brilliance from the Finnish netminder, but how he will function at the top of the depth chart is nothing short of an unknown.
Rask’s talent is undeniable. He is smooth in net and his play is more technically sound than the dolphin-like, scrambling approach of Thomas. Based on what has been seen, not only should Rask eventually become a better goaltender than his predecessor, but it is hard to make an argument that Rask will not be considered one of the better goaltenders in the NHL when he has a substantial body of work under him. The problem is there is just not enough of a sample of work to judge Rask on anything but potential.
We just do not know what we will get out of Rask when he officially becomes an NHL starter.
Rask did step in and take the reigns from Thomas during the 2009-2010 season as Thomas struggled with hip issues, and performed admirably well. In 45 games (39 starts), Rask posted a 22-12-5 record, leading the league in both goals against average and save percentage. Rask carried the Bruins to the postseason that year, but he also faded down the stretch. While he was certainly not the reason for the Bruins historic collapse against the Philadelphia Flyers that season, he was not the dominant goaltender that was seen in the regular season.
Rask was a rookie that season, stepping in to clean up after an injured, struggling starter. He was top dog that season, but the spotlight was not necessarily on him. This time around, however, the team is Rask’s and there is not the safety net of a two-time Vezina winner behind him. Anton Khudobin looks to be a more than capable back-up goaltender, but he is just that: a back-up. While Thomas was the starter and their roles were clearly defined, for the past three seasons the Bruins found themselves in a situation in which they had two starters on the bench.
No longer is there a 1 and 1A situation in the Bruins’ goaltending battery. Rask is the guy and the load is fully on his shoulders. Yes, Rask is still just 25-years old, entering just his fourth full year in the NHL and still developing as a player. Given the team’s championship aspirations and potential, however, can the Bruins afford to let Rask go through the typical struggles of a young goaltender, entering his first season as a starter?
While, there are plenty of storylines entering the season to watch unfold – the maturation of Tyler Seguin, the arrival of Dougie Hamilton, the health of Nathan Horton, Krejci and the cap – Rask replacing Thomas is the story at the crux of Boston’s success this season. If the young Finn thrives, so will the Bruins. If he struggles, it is very likely the fortunes of the Bruins will as well.
It is hard to believe, baring something unforeseen, Tuukka Rask is going to be a complete flop as a starting netminder. Within the locker room, Bruins players are certainly making it seem as though they are fully confident in and behind Rask, long since ready for him to take over for the enigmatic Thomas. Head coach Claude Julien’s defense first approach to the game would benefit any goaltender and Rask should benefit greatly from the shortened season, not having to endure the mental stress of being a starter for an entire 82-game season his first time out. He is, however, still developing, so nothing is a given.
The Bruins’ offense will be better. Depth might be an issue, but the defense will be amongst the best in the league as it has been much of the past half decade. Is their starting goaltender ready to become the guy and carry the Black-and-Gold to the top of a much improved Northeast Division?
Just a few more hours before we find out.
About the Author
Written by Matt Preston
I'm no Heminway or Haggerty, but keeping the dream alive, even if I'm pretty sure my Nana is my only follower. Self-deprecation is key, grammar is optional.