By Neal Lyons
He’s exceeded any and all expectations but his performance could create a tough decision, for management, this summer.
On Tuesday night, in Boston, Jaroslav Halak made 24 stops, shutting out the visiting Carolina Hurricanes, and guiding the Boston Bruins to an 8th straight win. It was Halak’s 500th career game, and his 49th career shutout. His 10.2 games per shutout are the best of any active goaltender with more than 55 starts, narrowly edging out his battery mate, Tuukka Rask, who sits second on the list, at 10.9. His performance prompted Bruins head coach, Bruce Cassidy, to affirm that Halak is, “a number one goalie in this league. He’s proven that.”
Jaroslav Halak was a 9th round (271st overall) pick of the Montreal Canadiens, back in 2003. He made his NHL debut three years later and is probably best known for standing on his head in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, when he led the 8th seeded Habs to an upset win over the President’s Trophy winning, Washington Capitals, in seven games. That summer, he was unceremoniously dealt to the St. Louis Blues to clear the way for Montreal’s goalie of the future, Carey Price.
After three plus seasons in St. Louis, a rental stop in Washington, and four years with the Islanders, had it not been for a down year on the Island, in 2017-18, Halak would probably still be a starter somewhere in the NHL. He struggled in his last season in Long Island, going 20-26-6, with a .908 save percentage. It was the only losing season of his NHL career, and ill-timed, as he was set to become a UFA that summer. Seeing little interest from teams looking for a starter, he opted to accept a deal to replace Anton Khudobin as the Bruins backup, signing a 2-year, $5.5 million contract. Khudobin had just left Boston to join the Dallas Stars.
In his first year with the Bruins, Halak nearly took over the starter’s role, when Tuukka Rask struggled early in the season. Without Halak as support, you have to wonder whether the Bruins would have been able to keep their heads above water during Tuukka’s funk. To take it even further, does Rask find the gear that he discovered from January on, without Halak there to push him? Regardless, there is little doubt that Rask’s reduced, regular season, workload was a contributing factor to his dominant, playoff performance, last spring.
Having a reliable backup is proving to be a key component of any NHL roster. Teams are realizing that, no matter how good their starter is, the more he can be rested, the more prepared he’ll be for the games that matter come spring. It seems obvious, but without a trusted backup who can manage a start per week, a team doesn’t have any choice but to run their number one goalie out there for close to 70 games. Their playoff hopes may actually depend on it.
Currently, it’s fair to argue that Halak is the best back up goaltender in the league, but is he a number one, as Coach Cassidy proposed??
His numbers would suggest that he is. In his last 55 games, which date back to his final handful with the Islanders, Halak boasts a 31-14-7 record, and a .926 Save Percentage. Comparing those numbers with last year’s top goaltenders, his save percentage would have led the league (min 50 games), and his 31 wins would place him in the Top 10. He would have also been Top 5 in Goals Saved Above Average.
This year, he currently sits third in save percentage (min 10 starts) and 7th in Goals Saved Above Average. He’s even 26th in wins, which doesn’t seem like much, but most of the goalies ahead of him have had more than twice as many starts. Not only has he been clearly performing at a starter’s level, but he’s probably been as good, or better, than two-thirds of the starting goalies in the league over the past two seasons.
About the only “bad news” in all of this, is that Halak’s deal runs out as of next summer, which will put the Bruins in a tricky predicament. They’ve come to count on Halak as their sturdy 1B but can they afford to keep him?
The short answer is no. The Bruins are already right up against the cap and the situation isn’t going to get any easier, this summer, with the likes of Torey Krug (UFA), Jake Debrusk (RFA), Matt Grzelcyk (RFA) & Anders Bjork (RFA) also looking for bigger deals. The hope is that the team is able to free up some space, possibly by moving out contracts like John Moore’s and David Backes’ but, even still, one has to figure that Halak will be looking for a raise (deservedly so), and devoting over $3 million of cap to your backup is a solid chunk, regardless of their ability, and especially for a team that could use that money elsewhere.
Having said that, maybe, at 35, Halak is happy right where he is, playing with his fellow countryman, Zdeno Chara, on a team that looks like it will contend for the remainder of his career. Maybe he’s content pushing Tuukka for minutes and is enjoying his present role. Maybe he isn’t looking for more. Not everyone revels in the pressure that comes with being a number one goalie. Only he knows the answers to these questions but it would be a blessing if he decided to end his career in the way that Ryan Miller has in Anaheim.
It should also be noted that, at his age, any team would be signing him to a “35+ contract”, meaning his cap hit would be counted regardless of whether or not he is active. This may limit the amount of commitment any team would be willing to make to him. Then again, he could still take more money/term to go be a 1B somewhere else, or maybe he looks for a lucrative, one year deal, like Lehner got in Chicago. Expect that he will be in demand, regardless of his age. General Managers in this league have taken bigger leaps of faith.
So, let’s take a moment to envision life without Jaro. It’s a little scary. Mainly because the Bruins don’t have a successor in waiting, already in their system. Dan Vladar and Kyle Keyser certainly won’t be ready. Max Lagace has more experience, including a few starts in the NHL, but he’s not a guy any team would trust for ~30 quality starts, at the NHL level. He’s also a pending UFA and most likely just a stop gap until Vladar and Keyser become Providence’s full-time tandem, next year.
This is the exact moment where you wish the Bruins still had Malcom Subban. Boston seemingly gave up on him before the 2017-18 season, leaving the freakishly athletic goaltender exposed to waivers after he failed to make the team out of camp. He was claimed by Vegas on waivers. Halak would have certainly slowed his development at the NHL level, but the timing couldn’t have been better for Subban to assume the role as Tuukka’s full-time back-up, next season. He’s starting to live up to the hype that made him a first round pick, back in 2012, providing some solid minutes behind Marc-Andre Fleury, down in Sin City. What’s done is done though.
The one saving grace is that the Bruins have shown a great ability to dig through the bargain bin for goaltending help. Previous to Halak, they found success with Anton Khudobin (twice), Chad Johnson, and Jonas Gustavsson. They even squeezed a decent season out of Niklas Svedberg. It’s been nothing short of admirable but they can’t rely on that run of luck to continue. Especially now that the league is putting a premium on finding capable goaltending help for their staters. There’s more competition in that market now than ever before.
What is known for sure is that the Bruins don’t want to find themselves in the same position that the Toronto Maple Leafs are in, right now. Cash strapped and without a quality back-up, it has potentially cost them a playoff birth this season and was a big reason the Bruins were able to get past them in seven games last spring. Ultimately, it probably cost Mike Babcock his job, as well.
Boston must be aware that they won’t get the same Tuukka Rask that they’ve seen for the past two seasons if he has to start 60+ regular season games again. This is a team that sees itself as a contender and, to do so, Tuukka needs enough gas in his tank for at least sixteen more starts, beginning in April. Ideally, they’d like Rask to see around 60 starts, total.
Come summertime, if the biggest decision on Don Sweeney’s plate is what to do about his backup goaltender, there aren’t going to be many people outside of Boston feeling sorry for him. And yet, it’s a big decision, none the less. Halak has arguably been the best free agent acquisition of Sweeney’s tenure and, when he looks back on it, he surely doesn’t want it being marred by how it ended.
For now, though, there are more pressing matters to deal with. Measures which will hopefully help his team make another deep run, this spring. Halak is already doing his part to make sure that happens. His future with the Bruins is a decision that can be saved for another day.