By: Joe Travia | Follow me on Twitter @NHLJoeTravia
To say the Boston Bruins goaltending situation has been unpredictable the last nine months would be an understatement. After a second-round exit to the New York Islanders last year, franchise mainstay Tuukka Rask announced he was dealing with a torn labrum in his hip that would require surgery. The recovery would require a minimum of five months of rehabilitation, leaving the Bruins with a question mark in the net for the first time since the 2005-2006 season, when Tim Thomas, Andrew Raycroft, and Hannu Toivonen all split duties. If gambling is your thing, please check these online betting sites!
While rookie goaltenders Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar showed flashes during the 2020-2021 season, Bruins GM Don Sweeney knew a team built to win now like the Bruins could not rely on two young goaltenders if they wanted to contend. With Rask still a free agent and facing a lengthy recovery, Sweeney signed free agent goalie Linus Ullmark to a four-year, $20 million contract. That same day, he shipped Vladar to the Calgary Flames, cementing Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman as the B’s tandem to begin the 2021-22 season. The door was left open for Rask, should he want to return down the line.
Despite his significant new contract, a slow start to training camp for Ullmark (combined with some underwhelming preseason performances) led to Swayman being the crease for opening night. Much like the rest of the team, neither goaltender got off to the best of starts. At the beginning of December, Ullmark was sporting a record of 5-4-0 with a .911 save percentage and 2.68 goals-against average. Swayman, at 6-4-0 with a .908 sv%/2.42 GAA, was not much better. Come December; however, everything changed.
With whispers of a Tuukka Rask return getting louder and louder, both goaltenders found their groove. From December 1st, 2021, through January 11th, 2022, when Rask was officially brought back on a prorated contract for the remainder of the season, Ullmark looked more like the goaltender GM Don Sweeney thought he was getting when he signed him to the $20 million deal in the offseason. During this time, Ullmark posted a 6-2-0 record in eight starts, with a very good save percentage of .919% and a goals-against-average of 2.39. Swayman, on the other hand, was red hot.
Despite a record of 2-2-2 in six starts, Swayman delivered a gaudy save percentage of .933% with a goals-against-average of 1.99. While six games is a minimal sample size. For comparison’s sake, current Vezina front runner Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers holds a .933 sv%/2.14 GAA. Swayman was giving the Bruins elite goaltending.
Things got even crazier on January 11th, 2022. After practicing with the team for months, the Bruins announced that Rask was ready to return and had been signed to a contract for the remainder of the season. Since Ullmark was given a no-move clause, Swayman did not need to pass through waivers; that was the odd man out. Despite being one of the league’s hottest goaltenders, he took the demotion in stride, vowing to work on his game and be ready to take the crease if either Rask or Ullmark faltered.
After an impressive season debut for Rask, things quickly went off the rails. He looked rusty and a far cry from the Vezina-level goaltender he had proven to be throughout his career wearing the Spoked-B. His athleticism never seemed to return, and his trademark perfect positioning suffered as a result. After four games, where he posted a 2-2-0 record with an abysmal .844 sv%/4.28 GAA, Rask announced he would be retiring. Swayman was recalled, and it has been a back and forth battle ever since to see who would be “the guy.”
In terms of the overall numbers, Swayman has clearly been the superior goaltender since the retirement of Rask. In 18 games since his recall, Swayman has delivered a 12-4-1 record with a .918sv%/2.31 GAA. Ullmark has been less impressive, posting a 7-4-1 record and a below-average .899sv%/2.80 GAA. Look a little bit closer, however, and you will see that things are not as cut and dry as they appear. As my colleague Max Mainville pointed out, things have not been pretty for Swayman since March 1st.
So, where do we go from here? While Swayman has undoubtedly struggled since March 1st, Ullmark has come on strong again. Since that date, he is 5-1-0 with a solid .914sv%/2.14 GAA. With 12 games remaining, GM Don Sweeney and Head Coach Bruce Cassidy will undoubtedly look for Swayman to break through the rookie wall he is currently facing.
While both goaltenders have had their moments, it is clear that Swayman offers the higher upside of the two. With potential playoff matchups in the first two rounds against high-powered offenses like the Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Tampa Bay Lightning (not to mention the potent Carolina Hurricanes team looming beyond), the Bruins will need whoever is in net to steal some games for them. When he is on his game, Swayman has looked every bit like an elite goaltender in this league.
Ultimately, I expect him to be in the crease for game one of the first round, with Ullmark waiting in the wings ready to go should Swayman not regain the form that propelled him into the Calder discussion in February. With only 12 games left before the playoffs begin, things are looking the same as they did in July 2021……unpredictable.
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