Is Tuukka Rask the Bruins’ savior?


Here’s the scenario:

You’re at your job, toiling away for the bosses, trying to do your best work. Over in the corner is the person who previously held your job for 12 years. Someone who, based on the statistics, performed your job more successfully than anyone in your company’s history.

He doesn’t have a contract; heck, he might not even be healthy enough to work again. But he’s sitting there, doing the same tasks you’re doing. Your bosses are openly discussing plans to bring him back. You nod at the guy, and he nods back, both of you implicitly understanding that the seat underneath you is merely being kept warm for him.

This has been the scenario for Boston Bruins goalies Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman for over a month. Tuukka Rask, the 34-year-old franchise leader in wins — and current unrestricted free agent — has been practicing with the Bruins in recent weeks, building back from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip in late July.

This included a stint as the Bruins’ emergency backup goaltender on Dec. 6, when Ullmark was in the NHL COVID-19 protocols. It was a bit like the current leads from Broadway’s “Wicked” finding out that Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel are hanging out backstage, just in case they twist an ankle.

Boston is 17-10-2 (36 points), hanging on to the final wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Can the return of Rask not only ensure the Bruins are a playoff team, but make them a Stanley Cup contender?

The Bruins have signed Rask to a professional tryout contract, and will have him play a few games for the Providence Bruins of the AHL. If all goes well, he’ll rejoin Boston on a new contract that won’t upset their salary structure. Rask famously joked that he would play in Boston for $250,000 and “tons of Bud Light,” although we’re still not sure of the cap implications for the latter compensation.

“He certainly looks the part out there right now,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said after a Rask practice this week. “You’re never sure with surgery how it’ll go. He got through it, put the work in. He’s clearly taking it seriously and wants to rehab as quickly as possible.”

While all of this feels fated, it wasn’t always set in concrete that Rask would return. The Bruins signed Ullmark to a four-year free-agent contract “in case Tuukka never came back,” as one NHL source put it. But the former Buffalo Sabres goalie was also insurance in case the Bruins didn’t have what they hoped they had in Swayman. The 23-year-old was 7-3-0 last season with a .945 save percentage and a 1.50 goals-against average. He had 10 goals saved above expected in 10 games — but, again, it was only 10 games.

Would Rask be an improvement over the current tandem? The numbers say yes.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Ullmark and Swayman had their best months in December, with Rask’s shadow looming ever larger over them. But their overall seasons haven’t made a compelling case that the crease is theirs. Overall, Ullmark is 30th in goals saved above average while Swayman is 40th, according to Clear Sight Analysis’ data. Rask was 11th last season.

According to Clear Sight, the Bruins’ goalies rank 28th in high-danger shooting percentage against, and last in the NHL in high-danger shooting percentage against off the rush. They’re 24th in high-danger shooting percentage against when the Bruins are shorthanded.

It’s an indication that these goalies are not getting Boston the “big saves” it needs. To further that point: When the score is tied, Ullmark is 32nd in goals saved above average and Swayman is 47th. Last season, Rask was fourth in that category.

If Rask is healthy, he’ll help. Even if it means a crowded crease for the Bruins. Ask the Rangers how having three goalies worked for them …

Of course, the Bruins have a couple of ways to turn their goaltending hydra into a two-headed monster. The first is the taxi squad, which is going to be traveling with the team through at least the NHL All-Star break. Then there’s Swayman’s contract. He’s in the second year of his entry-level deal and is exempt from waivers. They can send him to AHL Providence and have him get his reps while Rask and Ullmark man the NHL crease.

From a financial perspective, this isn’t ideal for Swayman. His base salary would go from $925,000 to $70,000. From a competitive perspective … you can’t control what you can’t control, and unfortunately, he has a contract tailored to allow the Bruins to control him. So chin up, stop the pucks, know you’re likely still the future in the crease, all while keeping in mind that there are no guarantees a 34-year-old with a surgically repaired hip will remain in an NHL lineup.

In asking around the league about the Bruins and Rask, the same question kept getting spat back at me: Does it really matter who is in goal for Boston if the Bruins aren’t good enough to win the Stanley Cup?

There are facets of this team that are canonical to the Bruins of yore. They possess the puck at 5-on-5 (54% of shot attempts). They’re a remarkable defensive team at even strength, with a 1.97 expected goals against per 60 minutes. That’s lower than their average from 2018-19 to 2020-21 (2.06), which was second best in the NHL. They still have Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak flanking Patrice Bergeron — when Cassidy decides to unite them — and that line dominates in terms of expected goal share (65.2%).

Compared to other NHL teams, the Bruins excel in these areas. Compared to the previous 10 Bruins teams, they’re fifth in shot-attempt share and eighth in goal share.

Look at the erosion from the Bruins’ last Stanley Cup finalist in 2019 to this roster. Zdeno Chara aged out. There was the still-inexplicable departure of Torey Krug as a free agent. Jeremy Lauzon was taken in the expansion draft. They lost role players like Sean Kuraly, Danton Heinen and Noel Acciari. It adds up.

The biggest loss is center David Krejci, who left to play in his native Czech Republic. Few teams in the NHL had the luxury that the Bruins had in recent seasons, in knowing their first line was dominant and that Krejci would anchor a second line, no matter who was skating on his wings.

Were it Krejci rather than Rask coming back, the Bruins would be in a better position. Charlie Coyle wasn’t the answer at second-line center. Jack Studnicka failed his audition. There’s every expectation that the Bruins are going to acquire another man in the middle by the trade deadline, but there’s also every possibility that center won’t be another David Krejci — and certainly won’t be another “Playoff Krejci.”

Theoretically, Taylor Hall should be the Bruins’ mini Artemi Panarin: a winger who can drive a line himself, no matter the center. While he’s averaging 1.59 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, he’s 19th on the team in shooting percentage (3.5%).

That brings us to the make-or-break part of this Bruins team, with due respect to its goaltending decision: shooting the puck.

Boston is 28th in the NHL in 5-on-5 shooting percentage, at 6.67%. If that held through 82 games, it would be the team’s lowest even-strength shooting percentage since the 2009-10 season. This Bruins team has the highest expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (2.58) of any Boston team in the past decade, but only the fifth-highest goals per game (2.42).

Improving to the mean in shooting percentage here would certainly make the Bruins better than 18th in goals per game. But while shooting percentages can be fickle, they can also be a product of roster construction. Are the Bruins deep enough offensively to shoot 7.61%, their previous three-season average?

Rask’s return doesn’t fix the systemic problems on the Bruins’ roster. What it does is change the vibe. He’s a familiar face from better times. He’s a security blanket for nervous moments. It’s like a band welcoming back its original drummer; it might not get them back to the top of the charts, but at least he knows the rhythms.

Rask said he wants to play only in Boston. If that changed, he’d be coveted by other teams — hello, Edmonton! — but one assumes it won’t. He’s a Bruin, now, again and forever. They won’t even have to make a new nameplate for his workspace.

Jersey Foul of the week

From New York Islanders fandom, who have seen some things this season:

This falls into a rather nebulous territory. Obviously, a fan shouldn’t be held responsible for a production error. But at the same time … maybe don’t wear it? Unless one wants to roam the halls of UBS Arena constantly explaining what happened and that you’re aware Mathew Barzal hasn’t unretired Billy Smith’s number.

Three things about the Winter Classic

1. I’ve heard the NHL is pleased with the numbers for the 2022 Winter Classic, considering the move to cable, a matchup between two Central Division teams and competing against a thrilling Rose Bowl that drew a peak of 19.7 million viewers. My theory on that success: While iconic venues can be a draw for the outdoor games, nothing beats a battle against the elements. The best hype for the Winter Classic was the several days of buildup about negative-10-degree game-time temperatures in Minnesota. When you hear it’s going to be so cold that the NHL has to heat the ice, you have to see it for yourself.

2. My favorite outdoor game trend:

I’m going to give the Boston Bruins partial credit for this, with their 1980s ski movie villain ensembles at Lake Tahoe. But the St. Louis Blues took off-beat outdoor game fits to the next level with their “Beach Blues” outfits. My favorite bit of trivia from the 2022 Winter Classic is that the beachwear wasn’t their first option.

“I actually ordered 30 lumberjack shirts two days prior to leaving,” goalie Jordan Binnington told the Blues’ website. “And then we got to the rink the next day and said, ‘Yeah, we don’t know if [lumberjacks] is it’ — so we went back on it.'” They chose wisely.

3. Another thing I loved:

NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer and his team always do a fantastic job of theming the area around the rink to the location of the outdoor games. In Minnesota, we had lumberjacks sawing wood and a log cabin from where the Minnesota Wild emerged during the player intros. Sure, Wild forward Ryan Hartman took a tumble during his pregame skate, but as anyone who’s spent any time inside a Minnesota cabin will tell you, that’s a natural extension of the experience.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: 3-on-3 OT

We’ve chronicled some of the creeping concerns about 3-on-3 overtime and the coaches sucking the fun out of it. But Cale Makar‘s goal on Tuesday night exemplified everything that’s great about the extra session.

The time and space yielded to a star player to make his magic. The instant-classic goal, created with teammates — how about that little pick play by Nathan MacKinnon? — and against defenders, rather than with none of them on the ice on a shootout attempt. Above all else, the unpredictability of the moment in comparison to a monotonous parade of penalty shots after overtime ends. There’s hope for the gimmick yet!

Losers: The rest of the Norris field

Our new NHL Awards Watch drops on Friday, so we’ll see where the wind is blowing with the voters on the Norris Trophy. But Makar now has three things in his favor: a points-per-game average (1.12) that leads the league for defensemen; a goal-of-the-year calling card highlight; and the chance to win the award for the first time, which is something that appeals to voters.

Winner: Canadian fans

The NHL has started to flip-flop games between Canadian and U.S.-based teams, moving the games in Canada until later in the season when they could be played in front of larger crowds than are currently allowed under provincial COVID-19 restrictions. There’s an obvious financial incentive for the league and the teams involved; it’ll hopefully result in fans getting the chance to watch these games, and the players getting a chance to play them in raucous atmospheres.

Losers: Flames fans

The only thing worse than watching a billionaire and a major city government posturing over the smoldering remains of a collapsed real estate deal is having to worry about the fate of your favorite team as relocation speculation inevitably heats up again. Calgary fans get to experience all of this now.

Winner: Mikko Koskinen

You have to appreciate the audacity of the Edmonton Oilers goaltender. He spouted off to Finnish media after coach Dave Tippett lambasted his play, calling out the team’s offensive efforts: “I have to be better but at the same time we scored seven goals in my last six losses. … I can’t score goals.” A goalie with a 3.19 goals-against average calling out his teammates who average 3.26 goals per game … you have to hand it to him. (And then watch him fumble it away to the other team.)

Loser: Dave Tippett

Tippett had to clarify his comments about Koskinen after the controversy, a goalie whose regrettable contract predates him in Edmonton. The Oilers are 2-6-2 in their past 10 games, are facing significant absences due to injury and COVID-19 protocols and are three points ahead of the bullet train known as Bruce Boudreau’s Vancouver Canucks. Meanwhile, Tippett has to live with the increasingly loud drumbeat that GM Ken Holland and the Hockey Canada Men running the team will inevitably turn to Mike Babcock to fix this.

Winner: Nadia Popovici

What else can be said about this hero? The Seattle fan who alerted Vancouver equipment manager Brian Hamilton to a cancerous mole on his neck was given a $10,000 scholarship by the Kraken and the Canucks. Watch her SportsNation interview here. A winner in every sense, and one of those moments that makes you proud to be a hockey fan.

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From your friends at ESPN

My interview with Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis about a disappointing season, a really disappointing goalie and what it means for the future of the first-year franchise.

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