We are now one week out from Tuukka Rask’s official retirement. After trying to return from offseason labrum surgery on his hip, Rask re-aggravated the injury and was forced to hang up his skates. There are posts going around, including on this website, that captures Rask’s dominance with the Boston Bruins. He deserves time to bask in the glory, but that is not the reason for this article. I’m taking a different approach here. Moving forward, without him anchoring the team, what can the Bruins expect from their goalie tandem?
As the starter in Rask’s first game back in Boston since re-signing, Linus Ullmark padded aside 24 of 25 shots by the Montreal Canadiens. I know, I know, these are the same Canadiens who are trying their hardest to set records for the worst season in NHL history. But you know what? Saving 24-of-25 shots is still respectable. How was Ullmark rewarded? By listening to the crowd serenade TD Garden with multiple chants of “We Want Tuukka.” Remember, he wasn’t playing. He was the backup, acclimating back to the speed of an NHL game.
It’s safe to say there are varying opinions on what the Bruins can expect from their netminders the rest of the season. The combination of Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman has fans on a roller coaster. There have been high points when Rask was nearly forgotten, as this duo was all but assuring the Stanley Cup would return to TD Garden. Then there were lows when fans were calling for Rask, in whatever physical shape he may have been in because their goaltending was struggling.
Optimistic Outlook for the Bruins
As goalies are seeing their average annual value (AAV) creeps closer and closer to $10 million (Sergei Bobrovsky with the Florida Panthers), the Bruins’ goalie duo is making under $6 million combined. Fielding a tandem of this caliber for under $10 million is a bargain and will allow the team to make one or two extra moves to round out the roster heading into the trade deadline. (Did someone say toughness? How about a second-line center?)
The second set of goalie pads in the Bruins’ locker room belongs to the best hugger in the game, Jeremy Swayman. Swayman did his best Jordan Binnington impression in 2020-21, posting dominant numbers as a rookie goalie. The only difference? Swayman did not take the net from Rask going into the playoffs. It was the right decision then, and Swayman’s early-season struggles confirmed that changing the name of the Vezina Trophy to the Swayman Award may have been premature. However, as the season progressed, he has improved and regained his form. He deserves a spot on the Bruins roster, even if it is as 1B in the current dynamic.
Before the Rask signing, Ullmark and Swayman had righted the ship. From Thanksgiving until the Canadiens game on Jan. 12, the Bruins were 10-4-2. After a rocky start when goaltending had occasionally hamstrung the offense, goaltending was now keeping the team in games and even stealing them.
Both goalies seemed to be feeding off the competition with the other, so having to split them up to send Swayman to Providence was unfortunate timing. On the bright side, Swayman was only with the P-Bruins for two weeks. This short gap should be easy to recover from.
Even with Rask’s retirement, the Bruins are still in capable hands in net. Ullmark and Swayman may not be the household names Rask was, but both have been solid in their opportunities and should be seen as viable NHL options who will keep the team competitive. They may not be the flashiest tandem who might steal an occasional game, but they likely won’t lose the team a game.
When right, Rask was an elite goaltender. The Vezina Trophy with his name on it acknowledges that. The playoff success, and there’s been plenty of it, points to this. In 2019, he was on a historic pace well into the Stanley Cup Final against the St. Louis Blues. For all his detractors, he wasn’t the reason the team hasn’t won a Cup.
Now that he’s retiring, there is one less piece from the 2011 Stanley Cup-winning Bruins. Thursday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes was the first game the Bruins did not have a player from that Cup-winning team in the lineup. With Rask’s retirement, Patrice Bergeron’s injury, and Brad Marchand’s suspension, “history”, if you want to call it that, was made. How did the team do? A casual 6-0 stomping by the ‘Canes. I’m not claiming Rask would have played the game to a 0-0 tie heading to overtime, or that Swayman would have fared any better, but this was not a good start for the post-Rask Bruins.
Turning to the numbers, Swayman has been terrible against quality opponents this season. At first glance, his 8-7-2 record is not awful. With some digging, the situation darkens. Against teams with winning records, Swayman is 1-6-0 — his lone win was a shutout against the Nashville Predators. Sure, these stats can be cracked up to usage, and it’s great he is winning against the teams he should beat. But one win in seven games against playoff opponents is not going to cut it. Based on this record, Ullmark seems the only viable netminder going into the playoffs, which makes it, by definition, not a duo.
Yes, Ullmark is a vastly improved player compared to when he was with the Buffalo Sabres. There is a quality team around him, finally. But, by playing in Buffalo, he safely avoided any thought of a playoff race for years. Swayman at least has appeared in the playoffs. He totaled, let’s check the notes, 18:34 against the New York Islanders last season — he stopped two of three shots thrown his way. So, for those keeping track, that is less than one period of combined playoff hockey between the pipes as the Bruins hope to make a final push with their aging core. Those numbers won’t set an anxious fanbase at ease.
Bruins’ Key Takeaways
There are a few main takeaways from this week’s events. First, Rask deserves the full support and admiration of the Boston fanbase. Attempting to recover from such a difficult injury and pushing himself to be in game-shape enough that he could still record wins in the NHL is an amazing achievement.
Second, the Bruins’ goalie situation is now clear – Ullmark and Swayman, the net is yours. There should no longer be questions concerning a return from an injury, how to split playing time, or any other distractions that could have followed in the Boston media. These two are the team’s goalies, barring an injury. We know that. They know that. The league knows that, and it’s no secret. It’s time to let their play decide who earns the starting spot and who is in the hat on the bench to start the game.
Third, the Bruins have a comfortable grip on a playoff position. The team closest to catching them is the Detroit Red Wings, who, while accelerating their rebuild faster than some may have expected, are still seven points behind the Bruins, who have four games in hand. The Islanders are 17 points behind Boston with five games in hand. Barry Trotz would be one of the few coaches who could close this gap, but that is unlikely. The Bruins now have the luxury of playing both goalies in games that will be important but are not make-or-break coming down to a playoff position. Seeding could prove important, but without having to consider Rask’s health, helping him find his game without hurting the team’s standings too much, the Bruins staff can play the hot hand and run a typical goalie tandem.
One final note, Rask, thank you for the memories. Get healthy, enjoy retirement and the time you can now spend with your family. Swayman and Ullmark, the crease is yours. I’m going to need lots of hugs postgame. Time to climb the standings.
Vince Reilly covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Vince graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelors in History and Political Science and earned a Masters in Sports Administration from Belmont University. He has worked in the Predators Front Office on Analytics and Operations, with Major League Baseball in Replay, and now with Tufts University as a Director of Hockey Analytics. Vince can always be found with a coffee in hand and he promises his sarcastic tone will always shine through his work.