By: James Swindells | Follow me on Twitter @jimswindells68
Some big questions surround the Bruins as they move into the new season. Issues linked to rehab recoveries and how the team navigates the first quarter of the season and keeps itself in a position to contend for a playoff spot are the focal point. But equally as important is the continuing development of the goaltending tandem of Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark.
The Bruins will enter the second season with their new duo transitioning over from Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, the tandem who worked the nets in Boston from 2018-2021. Rask and Halak helped lead Boston to a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2019, then won the William Jennings trophy, awarded to the duo allowing the fewest goals during the regular season, in 2020. While missing out on a Stanley Cup title, Rask and Halak set a high bar for their successors.
When Bruins’ GM Don Sweeney picked Swayman in the 2017 draft, the Bruins hoped he would eventually take over as Rask’s backup and groom him towards being the team’s starting netminder with further development at the University of Maine and with the Providence Bruins. Halak would become a free agent after the 2021 season, and Swayman’s development window looked perfect for him to assume the duties as Tuukka’s backup. Halak’s departure would lead to Sweeney signing former Sabres netminder Linus Ullmark, who had a less-than-spectacular squad supporting him in Buffalo but was a ray of light in a dismal 2020-21 Sabres season. Boston’s roster depth and the change of scenery from Buffalo to Boston were hoped to be beneficial to Ullmark and bring his game to another level.
A look at the past is necessary to understand where Ullmark and Swayman’s future success lies inside the Bruins’ organization. Over the last 20 years, the Bruins have been fortunate in that they’ve had great success at the goaltender position. While there are many factors for their success, one constant is goaltending coach Bob Essensa. Since 2003, Essensa has worked with the likes of Andrew Raycroft, Tim Thomas, and Tuukka Rask as the primary tenders. Except for the Thomas/Rask years, the Bruins have plugged in a variety of goalies to back up the team’s starter. Alex Auld, Manny Fernandez, Anton Khudobin, Chad Johnson, Niklas Svedberg, Jonas Gustavsson, and Jaroslav Halak all benefited under the tutelage of Essensa and gave the Bruins productive seasons.
Another factor in the Bruins’ success is their history of having defensive depth that, through the years, was widely considered one of the best in the NHL and has decidedly made their netminders’ jobs easier. The task of fronting Swayman and Ullmark will fall to the quartet of Charlie McAvoy, Hampus Lindholm, Brandon Carlo, and Matt Grzelcyk in the coming seasons. There’s every reason to believe that this foursome and prospects inside the organization will be one of the most vital factors that will set up Swayman and Ullmark for a successful stretch.
Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Charlie Coyle anchoring the top three lines give the Bruins depth up the middle that most teams lack. Their games are built on high hockey IQ, puck possession, and their ability to strengthen the Bruins in all three zones. The Bruins’ depth at center will be another significant factor that will allow Swayman and Ullmark an opportunity to shine in the nets.
Another critical component allowing the tandem to grow and develop into a formidable two-headed monster is that both are paid in the bottom third of NHL goaltending duos. Swayman is on a team-friendly deal that leads to him becoming a restricted free agent at the season’s end. Swayman’s pending RFA status will make for some tricky navigating due to the Bruins’ salary cap issues, but it is likely a minor stumbling block in keeping both goalies under team control.
Questions surround Swayman and Ullmark regarding whether they can make a name for themselves and find a place in the class of the Thomas/Rask and Rask/Halak combinations.
- Swayman is in the early stages of his career, and there are plenty of examples of goaltenders having quick starts only to fizzle out and never fulfilling the promise seen early in their careers. Bruins fans need to look no further than former Bruins goalie Andrew Raycroft. Raycroft won the Calder Memorial Trophy after the 2003-04 season, and with poor play in his next and last season in Boston, he found himself traded to Toronto for Tuukka Rask.
- Ullmark has been the target of critics and a fanbase that feels that Don Sweeney overpaid for Ullmark. Only Seattle’s Phillip Grubauer signed a more lucrative deal in free agency. While the 2021 free agent goaltender class is largely forgettable, Ullmark had made his impression on Sweeney by posting good numbers in Buffalo. The belief is the Bruins squad will fill out the gaping roster holes Ullmark found himself victim to in Buffalo. Ultimately, the only way Ullmark shakes off the criticism is with continued improvement between the pipes.
While equipped with a time-tested blueprint, the Bruins look to use their strong D units, coaching and proven veteran players who complement the D corps and give their netminding duo all the ingredients needed to maximize their success. The rest is simply up to Swayman and Ullmark to show Bruins’ fans, critics, and the front office that the future in net is in capable hands.