Back in September, Boston Bruins training camp had several positional battles that fans kept a close watch on. One of them was to see who would backup franchise netminder Tuukka Rask.
Malcolm Subban, Jeremy Smith and Zane McIntyre were thought of as the main candidates to fill that roster spot. However, it was the last dog that general manager Don Sweeney brought into the fight who emerged.
#Bruins sign goaltender Jonas Gustavsson to $700,000 1-year deal. The "Monster" was in Boston's camp on a PTO.
— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) October 4, 2015
Jonas Gustavsson was brought in on a professional tryout in early September to give the young guns some competition between the pipes. His preseason performances earned the 31-year-old a one-year contract worth a cool $700,000. The presence of an experienced backup would surely take the pressure off Rask, who appeared in 70 games last season due to Claude Julien’s lack of trust in Niklas Svedberg.
No one thought much of it then. Now, Gustavsson is proving to be one of Boston’s unsung heroes in the early going.
The 6’3 goaltender was dubbed “The Monster” in Sweden thanks to his frame. Well, it’s now his play with the Black and Gold that has been monstrous.
Gustavsson is an impressive 4-1-0 in five appearances with a goals-against of 2.20 and a .914 save percentage. The Bruins defense has also tightened up when he’s been in net as they have allowed more than 26 shots just once. A crushing 4-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on November 7 remains the only blemish on Gustavsson’s watch this season.
Nevertheless, the Swedish Olympian in 2010 has been very good, particularly at even strength. Gustavsson has allowed just six goals at even strength which is the best in the NHL among goaltenders with at least five appearances this season. Furthermore, the former Maple Leaf has an impressive .942 save percentage at even strength.
It is over 30 points higher than his career average (.911).
It’s amazing to think that Gustavsson has one fewer win than Rask in eight fewer appearances than Boston’s number one yet that’s where we sit almost a quarter of the way into the season. It’s pretty clear that he’s earned Julien’s trust to play more often than anyone imagined when Gustavsson signed.
(Note: All statistics are prior to Saturday night’s game v. Toronto)
Given how well the backup has performed so far, the elephant in the room has to be addressed.
It’s pretty clear that Rask has been a shadow of his usual self in 13 appearances so far this year. The Finn currently stands at a record of 5-7-1 with a goals-against at 3.18 and a putrid .890 save percentage. Yes the defense has been far from perfect in his starts but that also falls on the shoulders on the netminder.
After all, his eight-year, $56 million contract is among one of the highest in the League for goaltenders. It comes with the pressure of leading one of the NHL’s most prestigious clubs back to glory.
An alarming statistic has been Rask’s numbers at home. The 28-year-old is 2-6-1 at TD Garden with a GAA of 3.70 and .869 save percentage and has allowed at least five goals to slip past him five times. All of last season, Rask allowed just five-plus goals three times (all on the road).
So, is there the makings of a goaltending controversy? Simply put, no.
History has shown that Gustavsson’s numbers are not on the level of a number-one goaltender. In the four seasons he’s made over 20 starts, the seven-year veteran has been 55-50-19 with a save percentage just over .900 and a goals-against hovering around three. Rask is a world-class netminder and has shown the ability to be a true number-one.
And, to be honest, having a goaltender that counts $7 million against the Bruins cap ride the pine often is a recipe for disaster.
For those who are on the “trade Tuukka” bandwagon, take this into consideration. Subban (1-4-1, 3.81, .847) and McIntyre (2-3-3, 3.25, .876) have been pretty poor down in Providence. One of them would inevitably become the backup. If they haven’t been able to show the ability to stop minor-league talent, they won’t stand a chance against the best of what the NHL has to offer.
Regardless, Gustavsson has done very well to start his time in Boston. His performances have saved the Bruins from what could have been an embarrassing plunge to the bottom…at least for now.
Joe is a writer covering the Boston Bruins. He is a lifelong native of Massachusetts and is currently a content writer/manager for a newsletter at a Human Services Agency. Joe can be found on Twitter: @JoeCherryTHW