The rapid spread of COVID-19 and its effect on daily life has been difficult, including on sports. Hockey fans were just weeks away from the best postseason sports has to offer – the Stanley Cup Playoffs – before the NHL suspended its season. Many fans are doing their best to look forward to the future, and the brighter days that lay ahead.
Last week, however, Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask gave fans more cause for concern when he mentioned his possible retirement after his contract expires next season.
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Rask has been a staple in Boston’s net since Tim Thomas left and he has made a very strong case to be included among the best goaltenders in team history. His .922 career save percentage (SV%) is tied with Dominik Hasek and Ken Dryden for the best all-time among NHL netminders, and his 2.26 goals-against average (GAA) sits 11th among the league’s best ever. A Vezina Trophy winner in 2013-14, Rask was knocking on the door of another this season before the stoppage.
It’s been a while since the Bruins have had to worry about who their No. 1 goaltender will be. At just 32 years old, it wasn’t a stretch to think the Finnish netminder would be around for a bit longer, but with a history of health issues, including various concussions, Rask’s future in goal is understandably uncertain.
What would the Bruins do if he hangs up his skates after next season?
The Heir to the Throne?
As my colleague Scott Roche wrote about the possibility of Rask’s retirement, the Bruins should aim for a long-term solution. The question is whether or not that long-term option is already under contract, or if they have to reach beyond the organization to fill the void.
Right now, the Bruins have two potential heirs to the crease: Daniel Vladar and Jeremy Swayman.
Both players have shown promise, but they are young — Vladar is 22 years old, Swayman is 21. While Rask broke into the NHL with a .931 SV% and 1.97 GAA at just 22 years old in 2009-10, that is a rarity. As a rule, goaltenders take longer than skaters to develop and adjust to the professional game.
That’s not to say that either of these two couldn’t step into a larger role with the Bruins in a year and a half’s time, but it would be a huge risk to assume that they have their next starter waiting for them.
That being said, there are reasons to be optimistic. As my other colleague, Brandon Share-Cohen wrote earlier this month, Vladar has looked like the real deal with Providence this season. His 14-7-1 record, .936 SV% and 1.79 GAA are a considerable jump from the past three seasons, but as BSC also pointed out, he’s been a streaky player throughout his career. With a small sample size, it’s tough to make too strong a judgment about Vladar.
Meanwhile, Swayman is coming off of a flat-out stellar season at the University of Maine. His 2.07 GAA, .937 SV% and three shutouts earned him Hockey East Player of the Year honors. He was the first goalie to win the award since Thatcher Demko and Kevin Boyle split it in 2015-16. He was also named a top-ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey’s best player.
As impressive as Swayman has been in college, the pros are a different beast. If he does have what it takes to be an NHL starter, it will likely be a few years before he’s as reliable as the Bruins are hoping.
The good news is this: the Bruins have two goaltending prospects who are coming off promising seasons. The bad news: It’s unlikely either of them is ready to take on more than a backup role by the end of next season.
The Veteran Option
Even if Vladar or Swayman is destined to be an NHL starter down the road, chances are they’ll both need time as a backup to adjust. Ideally, they will both look promising next season, but it would be a surprise to see the Bruins immediately trust either with a starting role if Rask does retire at the end of the 2020-2021 season.
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The plan would look like this — one of the two young goaltenders (likely Vladar who has more professional experience) serves as the backup next season. During this time, Swayman gets a chance to adjust to the professional game in Providence. Considering that Bruins backup Jaroslav Halak is a free agent after this season (and will likely be too expensive for the Bruins to re-sign), promoting Vladar seems like it’s in the cards.
From there, if Rask retires, they sign a veteran goaltender to bridge the gap between Rask and the next long-term goaltender. In a perfect world, Vladar and Swayman would battle it out to determine who the next long-term answer is.
But this isn’t a perfect world. At least one of the two will likely fall off as Zane McIntyre did. (from ‘Bruins hope goalies Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar can succeed where others fell short,’ Herald News, 03/19/2020) That’s how it is with prospects, and especially goaltenders. Plus, injuries happen. That sort of thing could push back (or derail) the plan considerably, even if one of the goaltenders has a breakout season. Realistically, if either can make their way to a starting role anytime soon, that’s a success for the Bruins.
Otherwise, the Bruins may have to reach outside the organization until someone who’s capable of taking the reigns comes along in a few seasons.
As with anything, we’ll have to play the next two seasons by ear. Rask may not retire, in which case Vladar and Swayman have even more time to develop. If Rask does retire, the smartest play for the Bruins is to bring in a veteran until Vladar or Swayman (or someone else?) gives them no choice but to give them a chance.