Bruins: Swayman, Vladar Making Tuukka Rask’s Future Uncertain

The Boston Bruins picked up a monumental 4-2 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers last night, with Patrice Bergeron scoring the sixth hat trick of his career and Brad Marchand notching yet another shorthanded goal. The Bruins now sit five points ahead of the Flyers and New York Rangers for the fourth and final playoff spot in the MassMutual East Division.

While Boston’s known commodities brought the scoring, rookie goaltender Jeremy Swayman had the game of his life in his first NHL start. He faced 42 shots and stuffed 40 of them, the most saves in a Bruins goalie’s debut since Andre Gill’s 41 saves all the way back in 1967. As the guys embraced him after the final horn sounded, it was clear that they were both grateful and impressed with the rookie’s historic effort.

Jeremy Swayman (Maine Athletics)
Jeremy Swayman finished second in NCAA DI Men’s Hockey with a .939 save percentage at the University of Maine in 2019-20. (Maine Athletics)

Swayman’s play was especially impressive, considering the circumstances. Jaroslav Halak was expected to start, but a sudden positive COVID-19 test derailed those plans and forced Swayman into the starting role. This is not how he expected his first call-up to the main roster to play out, but he took everything in stride and put on a stellar performance.

Despite reports from a month ago about the Bruins’ desire to re-sign both Tuukka Rask and Halak, whose contracts end this season, Swayman and fellow prospect Dan Vladar are giving them a reason to reconsider the matter. They are the future in net, and the future is right around the corner.

Goalie Prospects Impressing

Although casual fans became acquainted with Swayman for the first time on Tuesday, those familiar with the Providence Bruins know that this kid can play. He has registered some impressive numbers in his nine AHL starts this season: 1.89 goals against average (GAA), .933 save percentage (SV%), and eight wins to boot.

Although he is only 22 years old, the Anchorage, Ala. native has shown great poise and maturity in the minors. He is fundamentally sound, never overplays the puck, and is never caught out of position. He showed these traits against the Flyers, closing up the five-hole and having the wherewithal to step out of the net on Philadelphia’s many breakaway scoring chances. He was giving Scott Laughton fits, much to the delight of Bruins fans.

Vladar has also turned heads in his four starts this season, posting a 2.25 GAA and a .922 SV% – both better than Rask and Halak’s season averages. While it is admittedly a small sample size, he has passed the eye test with flying colors.

Dan Vladar Providence Bruins
Dan Vladar has put his physicality and athleticism on full display in his four starts for the Bruins this season. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The first thing that catches the eye is Vladar’s size. At 6-foot-5, he takes up a considerable amount of the net and knows how to use this to his advantage. He plugs up the side of the net from top to bottom, leaving no room for short-side opportunities. His long wingspan also enables him to make stick and glove saves from almost any angle, as we saw in his first start of the season against the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 16.

His numbers with the P-Bruins tell the same story as Swayman: this guy is ready to take the next step. He went 14-7 with a 1.79 GAA and .936 SV% in the 2019-20 regular season, all monumentally better than his 2018-19 numbers. He just keeps getting better, and his confidence appears to be at an all-time high.

If the Bruins’ skaters could stay on their feet (we’re looking at you, Bergeron and Jakub Zboril), these last two games would have been even more impressive for Vladar and Swayman. That is the nature of the goaltending position, though. They are often put in difficult spots but are still expected to deliver. Both of these young prospects have certainly delivered, and they are making their cases to be mainstays on the Bruins’ roster as early as next season.

Rask’s Future Up in the Air

An upper-body injury has been nagging Rask and keeping him out of the lineup. He has played through injuries before, but the 34-year-old is starting to show some wear and tear. Bruce Cassidy recently admitted that his recovery has been slower than anticipated, and he is not sure when Rask will be ready to return.

Rask’s health is just one issue, though. With his contract expiring at the end of this season, general manager Don Sweeney and company will face a difficult contract negotiation. His current cap hit is $7 million, and while it seems like Rask is willing to take a pay cut to stay with Boston, the question is how much?

Sweeney is finally starting to crack under the pressure of his own incompetency in the free agent market. He can (and should) make a push for some high-profile offensive pieces this summer to complement Boston’s aging core. There is also the situation with David Krejci to think about. If the cap hit for these signings is significant, will there be room for Rask to get his fair share?

Tuukka Rask Boston Bruins
Tuukka Rask’s eight-year $56 million contract comes to an end this summer, leaving his future with the Bruins up in the air. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Swayman and Vladar’s cap hits – both under $1 million – give Sweeney and friends a lot more room to pursue offensive talent, which the Bruins desperately need. Their championship window could be expanded by another few years if the right moves are made.

Of course, there is also the looming possibility of retirement. Rask showed us in 2020 that he is willing to step away from the game for the sake of his own health, and he could very well make that decision again this summer, given his nagging injury. He and the Bruins would love to stick together, but it would likely be a one-year deal in the $4-6 million range, maybe even less. Rask could decide that such a contract is not worth jeopardizing his long-term health.

One thing is certain: if the Bruins bring back the Finnish netminder, we can kiss Halak goodbye. Vladar and Swayman are better, cheaper options for the backup role at this point and have shown that they can step in and start on any given night.

The Future Looks Bright

The Bruins are in relatively good shape when it comes to cap space, so I am optimistic that Boston and Rask can agree on a fair deal, assuming he gets healthy. He is definitively the guy in net, so long as he is wearing a Bruins’ uniform.

Still, the uncertainty surrounding Rask’s health and his upcoming contract negotiation raises the possibility that he will not be wearing a Bruins’ uniform next season. Should that happen, Boston has two young, hungry prospects waiting in the wings, and they are making it much easier for Boston to consider parting ways with him.

Whether it’s the fundamentally sound Swayman or the physically gifted Vladar, either choice is a worthy pick to be Rask’s successor. This is a good problem for the Bruins’ front office to have, and they should be thrilled that they have an abundance of talent at the most important position in the sport.

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