By: Scott Wood | Follow me on Twitter @ScottHoHPodcast
The Bruins goaltending had some difficult decisions to make in free agency of 2021-22. With Tuukka Rask’s disappointing injury-prohibited performance in the playoffs and an impending surgery that would see him shelved until the new year, there were questions to be answered.
Would the Bruins go with the supremely talented but unproven duo of Jeremy Swayman and Daniel Vladar to start the year, waiting for Tuukka to return for the second half of the season? Would they sign a veteran backup to pair with Vladar and safely send the waiver-exempt Swayman down to Providence to gain more experience as a starter? Or with proven goaltending in supply in free agency, would Sweeney go after a veteran starter, allowing Swayman or Vladar to marinate in a backup role?
Don Sweeney ultimately chose to sign Sabres’ goaltender Linus Ullmark to a four-year deal at $5 million per season AAV to be the Bruins’ new starter. This allowed him to recoup a third-round selection in 2022 (traded to the Senators at the deadline in exchange for Mike Reilly) by dealing Vladar to the Flames.
Upon first glance, it’s difficult to disagree with this approach. Ullmark performed admirably for a Sabres team that did him no favors with their play in front of him, putting up a winning record over the last three seasons (41-34-11) on a team that was anything but successful during that time. And while both Swayman and Vladar have both played exceptionally well, it was Swayman who won the confidence of Coach Cassidy and usurped the role of backup from Jaroslav Halak at the conclusion of the 2021 season.
At the birth of a new NHL season, however, doubt is creeping in for many fans. In preseason, Ullmark has looked (how to state this diplomatically?) AWFUL. His positioning has been bad, his mobility from post-to-post questioned, and his five-hole has been wide-open and welcoming. This is opinion that isn’t exclusive to me. If his .839 save percentage and ten goals allowed in just two games don’t illustrate his struggles concretely enough, Bruce Cassidy shared his thoughts after the Bruins loss to the Capitals in pre-season.
“He’s just gotta tighten up. Some pucks are finding their way through, and for a big man, that’ll be a challenge. That’s how a lot of goalies are judged. Do they get beat with good shots, or are they getting through you? We gotta make sure that Bob tightens him up. Some of the pucks are finding ways to get through him, and he’ll have to work through that.”
Meanwhile in Calgary, Daniel Vladar has received rave reviews from coach Darryl Sutter, who stated with a rare smile after a 37-save performance versus the Winnipeg Jets, “Of all the players that are trying to make the team, he’s the one guy that has shown he can make the team.”
As someone who argued both for going into the year with the young duo of Swayman and Vladar and for the Ullmark/Swayman pairing as the best the Bruins have seen since Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask battled for starting position, I admit I’m a little nervous. The 2021-22 season is barely underway, and there is a lot of hockey in front of us, but I start the year unsettled.
With Swayman the season-opening starter and looking very much the part of a bonafide number one, Ullmark has to prove that he was worth a $20 million investment over a homegrown Dan Vladar. Especially when that money could easily have been spent on a shallow blueline that lacks elite talent after McAvoy or a player who more confidently could have eased the loss of David Krejci.
It’s something that will be worthwhile to watch.