By Chris Gere
Since the 2009–10 season, when Tuukka Rask played his first full campaign as an NHL goaltender, the Boston Bruins have been blessed with one of the elites at the position. Yet, for some reason, a very vocal segment of the Bruins faithful believe that he not only fails to meet the standards of an elite goaltender but that he is not even good.
Several years ago, I retired from arguing about Tuukka on Twitter, mostly for my well-being. However, this debate has recently reached a fever pitch, which surreally culminated in my entire podcast (shouts to Brews & Bruins), getting into a Twitter tiff with NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty. In the spirit of having little else to talk about, I have unretired from this debate for one last word.
I understand that the economy of sportswriting revolves around clicks, so I don’t necessarily blame Haggerty for touting opinions that he knows will boost engagement, but at a certain point, it’s journalistically irresponsible to be this wrong. He boasts nearly 72k followers on Twitter, a fair portion of whom, I assume, trust his opinion. While he’s been spewing his anti-Rask balderdash, his confederacy of dunces has multiplied, and they’re parroting his rubbish en masse.
The vast majority of the arguments against Rask from your average Twitter ignoramus boil down to three things:
- He’s soft.
- He’s overpaid.
- He can’t win the big game.
So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to address each of these arguments one last time.
Argument 1: Tuukka Rask is Soft
It’s the most difficult one to refute with hard facts because there aren’t any statistics on NHL players’ toughness. However, this is an excellent place to start because the simpletons who think that Tuukka is bad aren’t usually too keen on numbers or facts. Do you want to know if Tuukka is tough? Ask any milk crate. The guy hates milk crates. He’s also the NHL career leader in threateningly pointing loose skate blades at officials. Sticks? He’ll smash them on goalposts, slam them into the boards, throw them onto the ice. He doesn’t even care. Talk about tough.
It’s a slippery slope to start talking about playing through injuries as being a sign of toughness in a goaltender, but he’s missed minimal time in his career due to injuries. The NHL concussion spotters are absurdly lenient when it comes to goalies, and I’d wager that Tuukka has played through a generous handful. Let it be known that I think playing through concussions is dangerous and dumb, but it is something that the type of person who would call Tuukka soft would probably value.
Verdict: Tuukka Rask is not soft.
Argument 2: Tuukka Rask is Overpaid
Tuukka’s contract, which has an average annual value (AAV) of $7 million, will tie him for the fifth-highest AAV of any goaltending contract next season (whenever that is). Let’s look at Rask’s deal in the context of the league. There are several strategies that teams employ when signing goalies.
- Take a known commodity and pay near market value.
- Take a risk on a depressed asset or an unknown commodity.
- Buy high for short-term success.
- Invest in multiple assets, hoping that the combined performance justifies the investment.
Strategy 1 sounds safe, but since there is no such thing as a known commodity in hockey, and especially in goaltending, you end up with contracts like those of Carey Price ($10.5 million AAV) and Sergei Bobrovsky ($10 million). And, even when the investment turns out to be a good one, there is no guarantee of team success, as in the case of Henrik Lundqvist ($8.5 million).
Strategy 2 is probably the best tack to take. Since goaltending is so fickle, NHL GMs can capitalize on short-term periods of subpar performance or injury and leverage that into an AAV discount. Ben Bishop, for example, is a Vezina-caliber goalie making just over $4.9 million because of a worrisome injury history and a poor 2016–17 season.
Strategy 3: sometimes, it works out (Connor Hellebuyck, $6.17 million AAV), sometimes it doesn’t (Martin Jones, $5.75 million AAV).
Strategy 4 is where you double down on the lower-tier options of strategy 2 and hope that one of them pans out. Think Arizona with Kuemper/Raanta and Carolina with Reimer/Mrazek.
I explained all of this to show that most teams kind of strategical luck into good goalie deals, and Rask’s situation is no different. He’s somewhere between strategy 1 and strategy 3. Despite having four seasons of NHL experience including two excellent seasons as a starter under his belt, and just coming off leading his team to a Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins were able to get him at a slight discount. The main reason for that is his only full 82-game NHL schedule as a starter came in his (excellent) rookie year, four seasons before a lockout-shortened 2012–13.
If Rask had been due a contract one year later, after his Vezina campaign, the Bruins would have paid out the nose to retain him, so Rask lovers and haters alike can rejoice in that.
Verdict: Tuukka Rask is fairly compensated.
Argument 3: Tuukka Rask Can’t Win The Big Game
This argument is fundamentally flawed and is a sign of someone who lacks a basic understanding of the game. Hockey is perhaps the sport that is most directly affected by random, discrete events. In a sport where the average margin of victory is already so small, one weird deflection or one lousy call can have a disproportionate effect on the outcome of a game. Pair that with the inherent parity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and each game is essentially a coin flip. I’ll take the largest sample size possible (historically excellent career stats), rather than the few “big games” where Rask shouldered the blame for what, in virtually every other circumstance, is considered a team sport.
One of the weapons most frequently wielded against Tuukka is that he has never been THE goalie on a Cup-winning team. It turns out there are only six active goaltenders who have done that. Does that mean there are only six good goalies? Whoops. The following is a list of active players who were their team’s primary goaltender in a Stanley Cup Final (winning years are bolded):
Marc-Andre Fleury (2008, 2009, 2018), Jonathan Quick (2012, 2014, 2015), Tuukka Rask (2013, 2018), Corey Crawford (2013, 2015), Henrik Lundqvist (2014), Ben Bishop (2015), Matt Murray (2016, 2017), Martin Jones (2016), Pekka Rinne (2017), Braden Holtby (2018), Jordan Binnington (2019).
This list excludes some of the game’s rising stars. Still, if the criterion upon which goalies are judged is how well they play in big games, then we have to omit the likes of Carter Hart, Connor Hellebuyck, Darcy Kuemper, Tristan Jarry, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Speaking of whom, the promising Lightning goaltender managed only a .856 SV% in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets in last year’s playoffs. It isn’t something I put a tremendous amount of stock in. Still, if you’re going to use big games as a measuring stick for goalie talent, that surely precludes Vas and his fellow youths (Darcy Kuemper just turned 30, but that’s not much older than me, so I’m going to let his inclusion slide). Of the goalies on the SCF list, I’d argue only Bishop, Murray, and Binnington are worth comparing to Rask.
Fleury has had a nice late-career resurgence (which looks to be about over). Still, he was long considered more of a hindrance than a boon to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s quest to establish a dynasty—not to mention Murray eventually usurped him. Quick, who relied on flexibility, lightning reflexes, and a perennially stout defensive corps, has entered into a steep decline. Crawford—who has had an underrated career—struggles with injuries and is currently sharing the net with the superior Robin Lehner, who is seven years his junior. Sadly for Lundqvist, it looks like the party is over after four years of average-or-worse goaltending at the age of 38. Rinne had the first truly terrible season of his career in 2019–20, is almost 38 years old, and he’s already being transitioned into a backup role in favor of Juuse Saros. Holtby, meanwhile, has been south of league average in three straight seasons. Despite winning a Cup in that span, he even managed to lose his job to Philip Grubauer. His career playoff numbers look like Rask’s (excellent), but if you want to get to the playoffs, Rask is your guy.
“Big Game” Netminders
Let’s start with 2019 Stanley Cup villain Jordan Binnington. He came out of nowhere, stole the St. Louis net, and rode that hot streak to the Cup. There’s enough of a sample to determine that he’s not a complete fluke á la Andrew Hammond, but he’s most likely average to slightly above-average. To make a poker analogy, taking Jordan Binnington over Tuukka Rask would be like saying you’d instead start a hand of Texas Hold ’em with J–5 than a pair of kings because you won the last hand with J–5.
Yeah, of course, you have a chance to win the next hand, but a pair of kings is far more likely to succeed. It is an example of both the gambler’s fallacy and recency bias—two things to which dolts commonly fall victim.
I don’t think many people would take Matt Murray over Tuukka Rask, considering he’s coming off a horrible season in which he lost his net to Tristan Jarry, but I put him here for two reasons. First, he’s won two Cups in his young career. Some people care about that. It’s nice to know that the bright lights won’t faze a guy, but I’m more intrigued by his superior numbers in three of his five NHL regular seasons, and two of his four NHL playoffs. Second, I just wanted to nerd out about how interesting the Pittsburgh goaltending situation is coming up. Both Jarry and Murray are RFAs entering their age-26 season next year. Jarry, having played only two, short (non-consecutive) NHL seasons, is a candidate for strategy 3, while Murray is ripe for strategy 2. It will be cool to see if any of the goalie-needy teams make an offer (via either offer sheet or trade) to acquire Murray’s services at a discount.
Finally, we arrive at Ben Bishop. I’ve never directly seen somebody saying that this is the guy the Bruins should have instead of Tuukka, but I feel like he’s the cause of all this tomfoolery. His career .921/2.32, and his pristine playoff career .929/2.12 numbers paired with his minuscule cap hit to make the dream of having a cost-controlled, world-class netminder seem attainable. It’s not. The Stars just got lucky that he scuffled through his contract year in Tampa and even more so after the trade to Los Angeles.
I agree with these hypothetical verbal combatants—he would be an excellent goalie to have. He also happens to be the perfect case study for why the “big game” argument is so asinine. The 2019–20 Stars, like the Bruins, had their season ended in a Game 7 by the St. Louis Blues. Damn, Ben Bishop really can’t win the big game, huh? Well… he lost in double overtime after making 52 saves on 54 shots. The game-winning goal was tapped in by Pat Maroon after it ricocheted off the post and the back of Bishop’s head. If the puck had bounced differently, maybe we’d be talking about Stanley Cup champion Ben Bishop.
To win the Stanley Cup, you need 16 wins. Every game in support of that goal is a big game. Sure, winning a Game 7 is exciting and badass. Wasn’t sweeping the all-world Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final with a .985 SV% pretty badass?
Verdict: Tuukka Rask can win the big game.
I honestly don’t know why some Bruins fans hate Tuukka Rask so much. Maybe it’s that Boston fans are so spoiled by success, that anything less is intolerable. Perhaps it’s that Tim Thomas’ otherworldly Cup run ruined them for other goalies, setting an unrealistic standard for playoff performance. Maybe its that Rask’s calm, symphonic demeanour on the ice stands in stark contrast to the cacophony of noise that was Thomas’ flailing limbs. Perhaps it’s the way that Rask looks comparatively nonchalant. Maybe Rask isn’t afraid to call out his teammates on their mistakes while the rest of the NHL is regurgitating lines about “getting pucks in deep.” Whatever it is, they’re going to look back at the end of it and realize that they missed out on enjoying one of the best to play the position.
Verdict: That was cathartic, but my true catharsis will come when Tuukka lifts the cup and these nincompoops will have to find somewhere else to direct their jackassery.