Tuukka Rask was a rock for the Boston Bruins last season.
The Finnish netminder did everything he could in his power to keep the offensively challenged club in games they had no business being in. Rask made 70 appearances last season (67 starts) posting a 34-21-13 record, 2.30 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. He recorded 43 “quality starts”, defined by Hockey Abstract as “starts with a save percentage greater than the average for the year”.
The 6’2 goaltender was a work horse for Boston. Rask faced the second-most shots (2,011) in the League while playing the third-most minutes (4,063) of all goaltenders. He had to do much of the heavy lifting due in part to the Bruins’ season-long postseason battle. In the end, fatigue got the better of Rask as he allowed nine goals in the club’s final three games, sealing their fate.
Regardless, he was far from the problem.
Rask will reclaim the throne of starting goaltender on Opening Night against the Winnipeg Jets. However, that is the only certainty.
There are several questions between the pipes that have no clear answer as we approach the end of July.
Who Will Be The Backup?
It’s not often you hear about the backup goalie being an intriguing positional battle, yet the Bruins will have one on their hands come September in training camp.
At present, Boston will have Malcolm Subban, Jeremy Smith, and University of North Dakota product Zane McIntyre as the three combatants for that one spot. Combined, they have 31 minutes of NHL experience possessed by the 21-year-old Subban (all of which he’d like to forget). The first-round pick in 2012 is running out of time to make the impact expected of him when he was drafted.
Smith performed well in Providence last season going 22-11-5 with a goals-against of 2.05 and .933 save percentage. The 26-year-old backstop has toiled in the AHL for five seasons but has never made the big time. Confidence will be high as Smith enters training camp in September.
The wild card is McIntyre. The sixth-round pick in 2010 recently signed an entry-level contract with the Bruins after three years at UND. McIntyre was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award but lost out to some kid named Jack Eichel (who I hear is pretty good). The Minnesota native went 29-10-3 with a 2.05 GAA and .929 save percentage in his junior year with the Fighting Sioux. He will be right in the mix with Subban and Smith for that backup slot behind Rask.
Three goaltenders with no NHL experience set the stage for what is sure to be one of the more hotly contested positional battles on the Bruins in two months time.
Will Subban Still Be A Bruin By Season’s End?
Speaking of Subban, this season could put the Ontario native as a crossroads in his career.
He has spent the last two seasons down in Providence adapting to the professional game after spending four years with Belleville in the Ontario Hockey League. Subban’s numbers in the AHL are more pedestrian than the Bruins brass would like to see, especially last season when the 6’2 netminder was outplayed by a journeyman in Smith.
Furthermore, his first NHL start in St. Louis against the Blues was a disaster allowing three goals on just six shots in 31 minutes. It was a confidence killer for Subban.
The 2015-16 season is massive for the 24th overall selection in 2012. This may be his last chance to prove to Boston he is a part of their long-term future or else he could find himself on the trading block. The Bruins still need a minute-muncher in the top-four of their defensive rotation and could use Subban as a trade chip to acquire said player.
This is a big year for PK’s younger brother. How he responds may be the answer to his long-term future on Causeway Street.
How Heavy Will Rask’s Workload Be?
Rask made history last season tying the franchise record for appearances by a goaltender (70). However, the fatigue began to show at the worst possible time.
I think Boston did a huge disservice to Niklas Svedberg last season, although it made sense in a way
— Catherine Silverman (@catmsilverman) May 10, 2015
Unless general manager Don Sweeney makes any further moves, the Bruins will have an inexperienced backup behind their franchise goaltender. Niklas Svedberg was in that role last season appearing in 18 games (14 starts) with a respectable 7-5-1 record. The Swede performed well but, due to their place in the standings, was relegated to riding the pine.
This season is expected to be another dogfight for the playoffs in Boston. Coach Claude Julien will have to be careful not to have history repeat itself with Rask. In addition, the Bruins will have 11 back-to-backs this season and should more evenly split them between the Finn and whoever his backup is.
Considering that four of Boston’s final five games in 2015-16 are against playoff teams from a year ago, Rask will be leaned on heavily down the stretch again. This makes it all the more important for Julien to trust his backup more often and rest his star netminder when he needs it.
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