Two U’s, Two K’s, and one big question mark for the Bruins.
While the black and gold cling to relevance thanks to their ridiculous top-line and Jaroslav Halak’s great start, the team’s biggest problem still lies at goaltender. Halak has been a major bonus for this team, but former Vezina Trophy winner Tuukka Rask has just been awful. In his 8 appearances in net, Rask has posted a .901 SV% with a 3.05 GAA, good enough for 25th and 27th in the league respectively. After giving up 3 goals on 14 shots in relief of Halak against the Vancouver Canucks, Rask said “I was just trying to keep it under 10.” Certainly not the attitude that you want your franchise goaltender to portray.
This past weekend, Rask and his seven million dollar cap hit took a leave of absence from the team for personal reasons. None of his teammates or coaches gave us any clarity on the matter, simply offering their support for the 31-year old while he takes a break from the team. Rask returned to Bruins practice Tuesday, prompting the team to shift backup Daniel Vladar back to their AHL affiliate in Providence.
So not only has Rask been off to a terrible start this season, he takes a leave of absence on a weekend where the Bruins played one of their biggest conference rivals and the Western Conference champions from a season ago. Fortunately, Halak stood on his head this weekend, supporting back to back wins against Toronto and Las Vegas, giving up just 2 goals on 79 shots.
Tuukka has been the most divisive player on the Bruins since his Vezina season in 2013-2014. A season before, Rask took the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Finals with an outstanding playoff run, but game 6 of the Finals that season will always provide the more memorable stat. With the Bruins up 2-1 and minutes away from forcing game 7, he gave up 2 goals in 17 seconds to give Chicago the series win.
The stats are certainly good, but not what we expected after the fantastic start to his career. Since his Vezina season, his play has seen a slight decline, averaging a .918 SV% and 2.36 GAA between 2015 and the start of this season. In comparison, Carey Price of the division rival Montreal Canadiens has averaged a .925 SV% and 2.35 GAA in the same time span. The arguments against Tuukka have been more anecdotal, saying that he’s not a “big game” goaltender and tends to let up soft goals. Watching his appearance against Dallas last week provided a good example of that, when he let up a ridiculously soft goal in the first period, but proceeded to shut them out the rest of the way.
Goaltending is a lot like pitching, where a huge chunk of the game is mental, and unfortunately for the Bruins, Rask reminds me so much of former Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz. Baseball fans will remember Buchholz as a model of inconsistency, constantly struggling with confidence issues on the mound, where he would either post Cy Young viable numbers or get shelled. Buchholz started his career with an early no-hitter, two all-star seasons in 2010 and 2013, followed by years of inconsistency. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Jaroslav Halak’s play this season has been equal parts fantastic and surprising, but I personally think that he won’t be able to keep this up. The journeyman goaltender has been inconsistent at best throughout his career, with his best coming in 2011-2012 when he posted a .926 SV% in 46 starts for the St. Louis Blues. Still, Halak does best when he’s in a virtual time share with another goaltender, not when he’s depended on to take the reins of a franchise in net.
This sets up an interesting scenario for the Bruins. Should this leave of absence prove to wake Rask up and get him back to a level of play indicative of his contract, they would be best served splitting time between the two net-minders. Neither player has had great success when they’ve been used for the vast majority of their team’s starts, so why not ride the proverbial hot hand for the rest of the season? Sure, they can lean on Halak while Rask figures things out (which, in my opinion he will) but even into a potential playoff run, Bruce Cassidy needs to go with a committee in net.
Let’s face it, without their top line the Bruins are the epitome of mediocrity at the moment, and unless their bottom 9 forwards start to produce, they will need a goaltender to carry them into the postseason. Unless Halak proves otherwise in the coming months, I’m not convinced that he’ll continue his fantastic start for much longer. The Bruins need Rask to come back and play at a high level consistently if they are to have a shot in an Eastern Conference packed with talent.
Embed from Getty Images