By: Michael DiGiorgio | Follow Me On Twitter @BostonDiGiorgio
Tuukka Rask decided to leave the Boston Bruins and the NHL bubble to take care of a family emergency. The Bruins Twitter folks heavily scrutinized him, but family always comes first, and this is no different.
More recently, Tuukka has gone on record with Boston sports radio station, WEEI, about what happened and how it led to his decision. Anyone who’s wanted Rask gone from the Bruins won’t accept any answer he gives to justify his departure, but frankly, he shouldn’t have to explain. Tuukka flew home, and the Bruins turned to their backup goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, to lead them through the remaining games.
Tuukka Rask has one year left on his 8-year, $56M deal he signed in 2013. The 33-year old is in contention this year for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the best goaltender each year, and was .02 points shy of tying his career-high save percentage of .931. Tuukka was one of the key reasons the Bruins were able to compete in game 7 of the Stanley Cup final last year. He’s been to the Cup final three times, twice as a starter, and has a Stanley Cup ring thanks to his predecessor, Tim Thomas.
Rask’s absence from the team isn’t his first, unfortunately. In November 2018, Rask took a leave of absence to attend to family priorities. There was speculation all over Boston’s airwaves, but the fan base never found out what happened and might never. The history of his absence could suggest Rask walks away from the game following these playoffs, and before his contract ends.
There have been plenty of NHL players who retire unexpectedly, and the NHL has rectified the terms of those contracts. Though the more likely scenario is he plays in the final year of his deal and then calls it quits.
The Bruins defeated the Carolina Hurricanes in five games, with Halak at the helm for three of these wins. Halak will be heavily relied on throughout the playoffs, especially now they’re facing the Tampa Bay Lightning. With their $7M per year goaltender at home and Halak leading the charge, what does this all mean for Boston’s goaltending moving forward?
The most likely scenario Bruins fans can expect to see is Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak tend the Bruins net together one last time next year. Halak also has one more year on his 2-year, $5.5M deal, meaning the Bruins could have a brand new face in goal come the 2021 season. Halak is re-branding himself after an impressive 35-save performance against the Lightning last night. If he leads the Bruins past the Lightning, he may be playing in more games next season.
If both Halak and Rask are deemed goalies 1A and 1B next season, it wouldn’t be the the first time a team has two starting-caliber goaltenders. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the 2015-2016 Stanley Cup after riding their number one goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, to 35 wins during the regular season. Unfortunately, Fleury suffered a concussion on March 31 and didn’t make his playoff debut until game 6 of the second round. While he was recovering, rookie goaltender, Matt Murray, guarded the twine. The rookie only played in 13 games during the regular season and led his franchise to another Stanley Cup.
The following year, Matt Murray appeared in 49 games, while Fleury played in 38. Fleury was making $5.75M a year and played the “back-up role” to Murray. The Penguins decided it was better to have two starting goalies and not to trade Fleury after the previous playoff run.
The Bruins should follow the same methodology next season, especially if Halak continues to play superbly throughout the playoffs. If so, they’ll be keeping the best goalie tandem in the league (William Jennings winners this past season), and they’d almost certainly back atop the standings next season.
One scenario that cannot happen until the following season, but has occurred in the past, involves the league’s newest franchise. Before the 2017-2018 season kicked off, the Penguins made a decision that everyone saw coming. The Vegas Golden Knights became the league’s 31st NHL franchise and were allowed to draft players from the other 30 teams that were not protected. The Penguins made Fleury available, and he became the Knights’ first goaltender. Fleury led the team to the Stanley Cup finals, only to lose to Washington in five games.
The Seattle Kraken just announced its inaugural season begins in 2021-2022. The Kraken will undergo the same process the Knights did, and existing teams will have to submit their protected players, allowing Seattle to pluck any other player not protected. Rask’s contract ends after next season and the NHL has seen teams, sign-and-trade players, to Vegas in the past. If Rask decides not to walk away from the game and the Bruins want to move on, he may become Seattle’s first goaltender. This could happen even if the Bruins don’t sign-and-trade, and signed from free agency.
The Bruins are planning their future in goal as we speak. Last night during game 1 of the second round, the Bruins announced another in-house signing.
Daniel Vladar is Halak’s back-up during Return to Play. The first two years of the deal is a two-way contract (meaning his salary will depend on the league he’s in), while the third year is a one-way contract. The first two years suggest Vladar will likely split his time in the NHL and AHL. The third-year though, suggests he will have a spot on the Bruins roster if his progression goes according to plan.
This signing in no way suggests that Rask’s time is over next season, but it does hint that the Bruins are looking to the future for their goaltending situation. As mentioned before, Halak has another year on his deal, and the Bruins have a few more promising prospects in their pipeline, who will be vying for the starting position in a few short years.
One improbable scenario, but it could be fascinating, would be if the Bruins traded Rask in the upcoming offseason to clear $7M off the books. The Bruins would rid themselves of Rask’s contract, which is glaring right now, given his absence. This move would allow two scenarios.
The first scenario is Halak becomes the franchise’s next starting goaltender, and the Bruins rely on their system to back him up. History suggests this is unlikely given their past experiments: Hannu Toivonen, Niklas Svedberg, Zane McIntyre. That’s not to say the Vladar, Kyle Keyser, or Jeremy Swayman are anything like the previous three, but the Bruins will not award their players a spot until they’re absolutely ready.
The second, which again is more fantasy than anything, is making a free agent signing in Braden Holtby. Holtby’s time in Washington is over and has awarded him a Stanley Cup, and regarded as one of the best in the game. He had an unsuccessful run in Washington this year, and their goaltending pipeline suggests he will be looking for a new home next season.
Holtby won the Vezina in 2015-16 and is three years younger than Rask. He is coming off a 5-year, $30M deal with Washington, which has his cap hit lower than Rask’s current $7M. Holtby would seek a higher deal than the one he’s currently in, and it’d be surprising if Bruins fans wouldn’t pay him Rask’s contract. General Manager, Don Sweeney, will not sign a 30-year old goalie to a 7-year deal, but something in the range of 5-years, $35M may be in their wheelhouse.
The scenario mentioned above is far-fetched and may not be even a thought that Don Sweeney has entertained, but the Bruins would have the goalie who stonewalled them for years in its jersey, and he’s a proven winner.
Fantasy aside, the Bruins knew the day they’d have to decide on their goaltending would come. Bruins fans, and possibly its management, may have thought this day wouldn’t be until 2021, but it seems like that day may be approaching fast. Sweeney has shocked the NHL in the past with his decisions, and this scenario may not be any different.