Deconstructing the Claude Julien firing

About 24 hours ago, the Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney officially swung the Sword of Damocles that had been hanging over the organization and coach Claude Julien’s head for weeks (some would even say years), dismissing the franchise’s all-time wins leader and Stanley Cup champion behind the bench, setting off a firestorm of criticism online and in the media for the timing and way it was handled.

This post will attempt to analyze the move and the subsequent naming of assistant coach Bruce Cassidy as the B’s interim bench boss. It is by no means the first and last word on the matter, nor will it hit every bucket that the firing impacts. Whether you were someone who felt it was time to go and are angered that the team elected to do it on the morning of the New England Patriots’ victory parade, are someone who felt he was not the problem and are even more irate at the timing, or are someone who feels like the move had to be made and have no issue with it (and everyone in between), this piece will try to raise multiple perspectives and shed light on some of the other factors that led to where we are on Wednesday, February 8, 2017- nearly a decade after Julien was brought in on the heels of the failed Dave Lewis experiment.

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The Tuukka Rask mea culpa

Tuukka_Rask

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

One of the nice things about having a blog is the platform it provides to put out opinions and in the process, be praised by those who agree with you and taken to task by those who don’t.

Last April, I/we wrote a post here at the Scouting Post called “Requiem for the 2016 Bruins” in which we attempted to break down what went wrong in a season that looked like a success with just one month left in the regular campaign before the wheels fell off over a disastrous 30-day window that saw the Philadelphia Flyers come surging from behind to knock the well-positioned (as of mid-March 2016) Bruins out of the playoffs on the regular season’s last day.

One of the major culprits in my/our mind was goaltender Tuukka Rask, who took ill and couldn’t make the start for Boston in their do-or-die game against the Ottawa Senators at home to close out the season. Before we continue- let us just say that nothing on this blog is personal. TSP tries to provide a balanced perspective on hockey (on mostly Bruins or Bruins-related topics) and goes to great lengths not to be seen as “clickbait” or a pot-stirrer that tries to generate controversy with outlandish views designed to provoke and inflame the emotions of those readers and Bruins fans who frequent this page. We have always had the utmost respect for Rask’s ability as an NHL goaltender- he was a 1st-round pick for a reason and a top prospect long before he broke into the NHL with the Bruins on a full-time basis during the 2009-10 hockey season. Having said that, Rask the person is a bit more complex- he can be aloof and prickly when things aren’t going well. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not exactly an ideal teammate at times either. This, coupled with his up-and-down play going back several seasons and the $7 million per year price tag he carries makes him a lightning rod of criticism at times.

Just as there is a segment of people who simply have never been on the “Tuukka Train” for whatever reason, there is a large cadre of Rask loyalists who have always seemed to take it personally whenever anyone questioned him, fair or not.

In the end, though, it is time to admit that TSP went too far last April in the position that the Bruins would be well served by looking into trading him. Here are a few “gems” from that post:

The Bruins were rumored to be discussing moving Rask on draft day last summer, and with hindsight being 20/20, they probably should have and given the reins to the then still (but not now) unproven Martin Jones. The Hamilton trade furor and fan backlash is likely what stopped Sweeney in his tracks on moving Rask (assuming the rumor is true), but after this season of up-and-down play and a less-than-team first attitude to boot, while the goaltender doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the blame, he nevertheless played a key part in the collapse.

Hindsight being 20/20, it was far too easy to leverage Jones’ success in San Jose and wield it as a cudgel to brain Rask with. He didn’t get much defensive support last season, and while he had his own cross to bear at times, TSP took the lazy way out by pointing to the woulda-coulda-shoulda course of action by sticking with the untested Jones. Given the state of Boston’s defense, that could have been a catastrophe for the B’s, and while Rask didn’t play the best hockey of his career in 2015-16, he also stole some games for the B’s and did play a key role in putting them into a solid position going into the season’s final month. True- when the team imploded, Rask did so right along with everyone else, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you throw the baby out with the bath water.

Here’s more from last April:

For me, it’s simple- while I admire the hell out of Rask’s natural talent, I’m not sure I’d want him in a foxhole next to me. Right, wrong, indifferent- he’s the one core piece the Bruins could move to try and get out from under the situation they’re in. He’s not yet 30, will no doubt appeal to a multitude of teams that could see him as a critical piece to get them over the hump, and hey- he’s a talented player. Boston’s problem is that the teams with the most to gain from Rask and the most to offer (young, up-and-coming D) are all pretty well set between the pipes. Nobody ever said the life of a GM was easy…

Trading him certainly means there’s a good chance the B’s will take an even bigger step backwards next season if Rask is dealt, but maybe not. And what’s the real upside to keeping him for what looks to be another bridge/re-tool year even if the B’s can land one higher-end defender and maybe another capable player via free agency? We’ve already seen in two seasons that Rask was unable to elevate his play enough to negate the dearth of skill at other positions. So, depending on the return and how much cap space is allocated to other talent at other positions, it just might get Boston on the right track to sustained success sooner than many might think.

Wow, I even used the foxhole reference…as the old song goes: “nowhere to run to, baby- nowhere to hide…” The rationale was sound enough, but it looks nothing short of foolish after 1 month of the new season.

A funny thing happened on the way to burying the Boston defense for 2016-17 and Rask’s chances to do something important along with it- Brandon Carlo came along and has helped to reinvigorate Zdeno Chara’s play. The current defense is no threat to Stanley Cup blue line corps of yore, and they’ve certainly put Rask and the three other goalies who have suited up for Boston in the season’s first month in some pickles at times, but they appear to be an improved group from last year. When you consider that other than re-signing John-Michael Liles, there wasn’t one significant addition from outside the organization over the summer, that’s saying something.

The reality is- Rask has been able to elevate his play, reeling off 10 wins in his first 11 games for the first time in Bruins history since some guy named Gerry Cheevers did it 40 years ago. Cheevers, by the way, is a Hall of Fame goaltender and two-time Stanley Cup champion for the B’s, arguably the most identifiable goalie for the franchise given his iconic “stitches” mask and clutch play in the postseason (he is Boston’s all-time playoff wins leader ahead of other Cup winners such as Cecil “Tiny” Thompson, Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek and Tim Thomas). The skeptic will say- “Yeah, but it’s only been one month!” as a counter to Rask’s stellar play, but this blog doesn’t deal in “yeah, buts”- we call it like we see it and thus far, the 29-year-old Finn is the hands-down MVP and only one who’s posted a ‘W’ (repeat 10 times) to keep the Bruins above water. We’re not worried about what will happen if Rask slumps, because frankly- he’s playing some of the best hockey we’ve seen, and it’s giving both he and his teammates a major lift. If you want to know what elite NHL goaltending looks like, check out film on Rask’s starts this season.

Here’s where we probably should have just quit while we were ahead, but no- we/I just kept digging the hole deeper. To whit:

In the end, I just don’t feel that Rask is the right player for this team. His body language and at times perceived indifference doesn’t seem suited for the clear growing pains such a porous defense and inconsistent forward group is going to bring to the ice on any given night in Boston. It doesn’t make Rask a bad person, and he’s done some good things for the B’s in his tenure. Before the legion of Rask fans descend on this space to blast me for saying it- I truly believe a change of scenery would be best for him too. I have little doubt that with the right destination, he’d waive his own NMC to do so. Unfortunately, it also means Sweeney and Co. are selling low, but sometimes you have to swallow hard, cut your losses and do what you think is right for the club over the long haul.

Well, when you get it wrong, sometimes you just need to come out and take your lumps. No equivocating or attempts to rationalize or justify needed. Obviously Don Sweeney doesn’t need or want our help and he held the line, believing that Rask was capable of giving the team more than he did last year and even the season before.

Rask has been stellar, and how he goes, so will the Boston Bruins season. He’s talented enough to carry the team and he’s done it so far with the rest of the scoring balance on the lines starting to be restored and Torey Krug appearing to be getting closer to full health after a rough first 30 days. There are sure to be ups and downs, but as someone who floated the idea of trading Rask, here’s a mea culpa. Even if and when he inevitably comes down to earth a bit, Rask has shown what he’s capable of, and that has to instill Boston leadership with the belief that he can be a part of the solution going forward, even if the franchise might have to take a step or two backwards first.

Patience certainly can be a virtue and right now, the B’s are reaping the benefits of sticking by their man. At TSP, we’re big enough to admit that and offer our thanks that we weren’t in a position to sell low on Rask, which would have been a horrendous thing to do, especially if he was enjoying this renaissance in another team’s colors while the B’s took cents on the dollar for another high-profile trade.

So, there it is- we return you to your regularly scheduled Boston Bruins hockey season.

Bruins come up large against Red Wings but…

…did it really have to come down to one last game against the Ottawa Senators and even in the event of a win, a fate that still rests in hands of Detroit and Philadelphia?

Apparently so.

On the plus side, the Bruins came out firing Thursday night and David Pastrnak’s goal less than three minutes in withstood Jeff Blashill’s coach’s challenge to give the home team a 1-0 lead that they never relinquished.

On the Wings bench, Blashill watched his former junior player with the Indiana Ice deal his club a setback in the quest to clinch 25 straight seasons in the playoffs, a mark that is still four years behind the Boston Bruins, who established a run of 29 years in the postseason before bottoming out in 1997. Torey Krug scored his fourth goal of the season and first since December 5 (55 games) with a power drive with the man advantage that beat starter Jimmy Howard to the blocker side and stood up as the winning tally. Krug’s two assists gave him three points and the game’s 1st star, adding to his career-best offensive output (his goal totals are way down, but his assists are 13 more than his previous high of 27). I’ve seen all I need to from Krug…he’s a winner and much more important part of this Bruins team than some give him credit for. I can assure you that if he was 6-1 or 6-2, he wouldn’t get anywhere near the grief or negative scrutiny he does from some people, but that’s life. He’s heard it all before, and ultimately, he’ll continue to grow as a player or person. Those who don’t think he’s worth the $5M or more it’s going to take to re-sign Krug- here are two words: Tough. Cookies. It’s going to happen and when it does, it will be money well spent. More on that later in a future podcast, but I don’t expect to win the critics over. Some folks are simply never going to come around on Krug, and that’s fine. Complete consensus is always difficult, and I’ll do my level best to present the case and then move on.

But first, back to the home win…

While it was a statement victory for the Bruins, who also got goals from Brad Marchand (37), Loui Eriksson (30) and Lee Stempniak (his third in 18 games with Boston since the trade deadline, 19th overall), real good goaltending from Tuukka Rask (31 wins) in making saves at critical moments of the contest to keep the Wings from ever mounting a serious push, it does make you wonder where this team has been for the past thee weeks.

The fourth line of Frank Vatrano-Noel Acciari-Landon Ferraro– aka “La Cosa Goalstra” and I’ve also seen them referred to as the Little Italy line (not sure who came up with that one) which is also genius because all three are at or under 6-foot in height, provided some impressive energy and ruggedness all night. They’re not making the kind of offensive demonstration that made the Merlot line the best fourth unit in the NHL during the 2011-13 hey day of two Stanley Cup appearances in three years, but the current Boston fourth line is grinding it out and making plays. Their ability to possess the puck and generate scoring chances while to go with solid physical play and defensive awareness means that they aren’t a liability. The production hasn’t happened yet, but the Bruins could do far worse.

Now, Boston gets to face the Ottawa Senators at home in the season finale. Optimistic fans would do well not to look past their division rival to focus on the other scenarios involving Detroit and Philly before the Bruins take care of business first. The pessimists and cynics of course- will say it doesn’t matter even if the Bruins get in because they are toast in the playoffs. Even if true, no organization should ever subscribe to losing on purpose and just the experience of playoff games for those who have yet to taste that, is of some benefit.

In any case, here are some various scenarios upon which Boston’s playoff lives depend (compliments of FOB (friend of blog) Dominic Tiano (thanks Dom!):

Scenarios

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once more, we’re reminded of so many opportunities the Bruins had previously to take the drama out of it by simply taking care of business when they were in position to do so.

It’s a team effort and no one factor, player, coach or manager is responsible for the Bruins potentially being where they were a season ago with little to show for all that has occurred since the 2015 campaign ended.

What is certain is that the Bruins must win their final game to give them the best shot at getting back to the postseason in Don Sweeney’s first year as GM. Even then, two other teams get a vote. If they lose to the Sens, then let’s face it- they can still get in, but they probably don’t deserve it.

Buckle up!

Random observations:

Loui Eriksson tallied his 30th goal of the year last night for just the second time in his NHL career (he scored a season high 36 in 2008-09 with the Dallas Stars). With it, the Boston Bruins have three 30-goal guys in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Eriksson for the first time since 2002-03 when Glen Murray (44), Joe Thornton (36) and Mike Knuble (30) did the deed. (My soon-to-be in high school daughter turned 1 the year they did for some perspective)

A year later, Knuble-Thornton-Murray were christened the “700-lb line” by none other than then-Montreal head coach Claude Julien in the 2004 playoffs. In case you forgot, the B’s blew a 3-1 series lead to lose to Julien’s Habs in 7 at the Garden.

Torey Krug’s 44 points leads all Boston Bruins defensemen and his 40 assists are second only to David Krejci– he has four more helpers than Patrice Bergeron. Throw out the aberration of a low (1.5 percent) shooting percentage, and he’s about as productive as they come from the blue line.

Tuukka Rask’s .915 save percentage is the lowest of his career to date. The last time he was under .920 was in 2010-11, when he posted a .918 after playing in just 29 games as Tim Thomas’ backup. That’s a reflection of both the fall-off in talent of this Boston Bruins team, but there are other factors in play. When it comes down to it- Rask has been hot and cold all year, as one Twitter follower sent me this stat today: Rask is 5th in the NHL for most games: 19 with a save % of .950, but also 4th with 10 games of a sv% of .850 or less. Sure- there’s a lot to be said for the quality of the defense and team in front of him, but he has some accountability in this, too. There were nights when he could have and should have played better. The Bruins can and should get more from their 7-million dollar man in net.

Class move by Greg “Puck Daddy” Wyshynski to tweet out his gratitude to Dom Tiano for breaking down all of the possible playoff scenarios. Give Dom a follow if you don’t already and if you do, then you know how passionate about hockey and the Bruins he is. He’s also one of the smartest people out there on the nuts and bolts of the CBA and how things work behind the scenes. This is tedious work for those of us who have to research the myriad documents and complex language of the NHL’s by-laws and regulations, but having Dom as a friend and resource has helped me and countless others to get the reporting right. Take a bow.

 

 

Keys to the kingdom: Tuukka Rask

When it comes to the hopes for an entire hockey season, Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask has the keys to the kingdom. As he goes, so goes any optimism that the team that was a Stanley Cup contender just two seasons ago can be more than a middle of the pack team in 2015-16.

Tuukka Rask: the calm before the storm (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Tuukka Rask: the calm before the storm (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Rask’s journey from former first-round selection of the Toronto Maple Leafs a decade ago to Boston farmhand and Tim Thomas’ backup to NHL elite performer and workhorse has been a model of consistency and patience. Even though he was the 21st overall selection in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, he wasn’t rushed to the big league before he was ready, but instead given an opportunity to compete in his native Finland’s top pro league and play most of the high profile international tournaments before he played a single professional game in North America.

When the Bruins acquired him for one-time Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft in 2006, Rask had already forged a sterling reputation as one of the most promising young goalies in the world. Little did anyone know that aside from Thomas’ injury-riddled 2009-10 hockey season which opened the door for Rask to emerge as an NHL regular and playoff starter, it would be another six years before Rask finally stepped into the limelight as the No. 1 for Boston, a distinction he put an exclamation point on when he won the 2014 Vezina Trophy.

Then (2005 draft and beyond): Rask entered the 2004-05 season as a favorite to be a top-30 pick. Just the year before, Rask had shined for Team Finland at the Viking Cup in Alberta, impressing scouts with his athletic ability and penchant for performing under a barrage of shots.

He made the 2005 Finnish World Jr. squad which competed in Grand Forks, N.D. (when Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel all made significant splashes) at age 17, but struggled on the big stage in that tournament. Still, his stock was high entering the draft that summer (the actual event was not held in usual fashion due to the lockout) and Toronto pounced on him with the 21st pick- right in front of Boston, who reportedly were set to make Rask their selection despite having drafted fellow Finn Hannu Toivonen just three years earlier.

They ranked him 14th overall and the third-best goaltender available behind Carey Price and bust J.P. Levasseur, but here is some of what Red Line Report had to say about Rask in 2005: Bit of an engima all year- very inconsistent. The old Rask we know and love plays with confidence and swagger. Squares up to shooters very well. Goes down into butterfly early but still manages to cover top corners due to great size and flexibility. Exceptionally athletic and acrobatic. Covers a lot of net and moves smoothly side-to-side…but there were times throughout the season when he came unraveled and couldn’t make big saves to keep his team in games.

This scouting report, written more than 10 years ago, could be published tomorrow and it would describe Rask in 2015 to a tee. But part of what makes Rask special is that he is so athletic and able to make stops that lesser goalies can only dream of doing. He didn’t just walk in and sit around while everything fell into place- it took time, work and patience both on Rask’s part and that of the Bruins to gradually develop him, with two full AHL years after the team signed Rask in 2007 (with brief NHL callups sandwiched in there) before he graduated to being Boston’s full-time backup in 2009-10.

When Thomas struggled with a debilitating hip injury that few knew the extent of until after he made his triumphant return to the world stage in 2010-11, Rask filled the void by taking away the top job and getting the nod for Boston’s round 1 playoff series against the higher-seeded Buffalo Sabres. He was superb in dispatching the Sabres in six games, and followed that up by keying Boston to a 3-0 series lead over the Philadelphia Flyers in round 2. Alas, the wheels completely fell off and Boston suffered a historic (since helped by San Jose’s similar collapse to the Los Angeles Kings in 2014) come-from-behind defeat in seven games, with Rask and an injury-decimated B’s team dropping four consecutive games including a blown 3-0 lead in Game 7 at home.

Rask’s stumbles opened the door for Thomas to return with a vengeance after surgery fixed his hip and the veteran went on to have a historic year for Boston, winning a second Vezina Trophy since 2009 and far more importantly, winning the 2011 Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Along the way, Thomas exorcised the demons Rask could not keep at bay with a four-game sweep of the Flyers to avenge the previous spring’s embarrassment.

That meant another season- 2011-12- as backup (and a late-season injury curtailed Rask’s playing time that year even more)- but set the stage for an ascendance when Thomas decided he no longer wished to play for the Bruins and announced he would sit out the 2012-13 season.

Pro goalie consultant and USA Hockey regional scout Justin Goldman wrote a prophetic piece on Rask over at his Goalie Guild website back on August 27, 2012, leading off with this gem:

For a highly-touted prospect of Rask’s caliber, the pressure to win rises interdependently with expectations. Regardless, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’ll transition from being an “elite backup” to a “workhorse starter” smoothly. He’s not a kid anymore, he has a healthy dose of NHL experience, and he has witnessed both the drama of the Stanley Cup playoffs and the “highs and lows” of an 82-game season.

You can (and should) read the entire post here.

Indeed, Rask followed that path albeit through the challenges of a lockout-shortened season in 2012-13, but leading his team’s charge to the 2013 Stanley Cup final series, where the B’s lost a hard-fought six-game tug of war to the Chicago Blackhawks. That performance affirmed Boston’s belief in Rask and set the stage for an eight-year extension worth an average of $7 million per season, signed in July of that year.

He justified that investment with his Vezina Trophy as part of Boston’s President’s Trophy march in 2014, but aside from an elite January 2015 run, struggled to maintain his form and consistency, finishing with season totals far below his norm. Even with that, the B’s missed the playoffs on the last night of the regular season, which leads us to where we sit today.

Style analysis: Rask is the prototypical modern NHL goaltender: He’s a tall, lean, long-limbed butterfly style stopper who possesses the tremendous reflexes and competitive drive to thrive at the highest level. From a technical standpoint, he’s nearly flawless- he stays square to the shooter, tracks the puck effortlessly, reads the developing play and utilizes a smooth yet explosive side-to-side push to negate cross-ice puck movement and scoring chances. He does have a tendency to sometimes get away from the less-is-more economy of motion that top netminders employ to max benefit.

Here’s Goldman on that:

Like many naturally gifted reflex-based goalies, Rask has a tendency to over-amplify his movements. In some instances, he ends up in less-than-perfect positioning on rebound chances, or in scramble situations.

For him, there is such a thing as being too urgent in the crease. So when it comes to his recoveries, his post-save mechanics, or tracking pucks and staying square in frenzied situations, less is often more. When I look back at my scouting reports over the years, and when I dissect video, I come to the conclusion that sometimes he works way harder than is really necessary.

Overall, Rask’s style lends itself to providing shooters and elite finishers with the predicability that they can sometimes exploit to their advantage by putting the puck where they know the goalie can’t stop it. But scoring is down around the league less because the equipment is bigger and more because there has never been a period of time in the NHL when the league has had more top-shelf athletes and competitors playing the position. Rask is a poster boy for the modern NHL goaltender with his swagger and ability to make tough saves look easy.

On the mental side, Rask looked tired and worn down by the end of the season, which is something to keep an eye on. He played in a franchise record-tying 70 games last year and at one point, appeared desperately in need of a break when Malcolm Subban took the start against St. Louis. When Subban was chased from the B’s net early in the second frame, a clearly flustered Rask had to come into the game in relief. The key takeaway here is that we cannot forget that these guys are not robots and even the best need time to step back and recharge the batteries.

Now: Entering the third year of his pact and at age 28, Rask is the linchpin of the B’s new season.

Though critics will point to his lack of a Stanley Cup championship when debating his impact on the salary cap, even the most ardent, but intellectually honest of his critics will concede that Rask represents Boston’s best chance to make the playoffs *this* year, and as any savvy hockey person will tell you- whether in transition or in complete rebuild, if you don’t have a top goaltender, no matter what you do, you’re not likely to get far.

The key to Rask’s success lies not only with a defense that admittedly has more than a few questions headed into the new year, but also with whom the B’s will turn for backup duties. Niklas Svedberg didn’t work out, but if veteran (and fellow) Swede Jonas Gustavsson plays well in camp and the exhibition season, he’ll likely get a one-year deal at the minimum to provide that capable relief. His biggest issue is durability, which might also provide several of the youngsters with a brief chance to show their mettle in the NHL on a limited basis. But for Rask’s and the team’s sake- the best bet is to go with Gustavsson.

The Bruins need that cocky swagger back from Rask, and he enters the season in his prime years, best positioned to put forth his best effort. We’ll soon find out if that will be enough.

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview: Goaltenders

1. In retrospect: It was a season of discontent in Boston as the Bruins watched Pittsburgh smoke the hapless Buffalo Sabres on the final night of the 2014-15 regular season to take the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and relegate the B’s to the late spring sidelines for the first time since 2007.

Goaltending played a part in Boston’s early trip to the links. Tuukka Rask and Niklas Svedberg played their part in the unsuccessful season to be sure, but you can make the case that if not for Rask’s Vezina-caliber talent on many nights, Boston’s fall from the top-eight in the East would have been even more precipitous than it was. Draft watchers will tell you that it might not have been such a bad thing for that to happen, but for a team with higher expectations going in, Rask was often the most consistent glue that gave the fans hope that a better team was hiding behind the curtain of up-and-down play.

Unfortunately, Svedberg did not inspire enough confidence from head coach Claude Julien to earn more starts that might have given Rask more of an opportunity to re-charge and re-focus later in the year when every point was at a premium. Boston’s drop from having the third-best offense in 2013-14 to 22nd last year, not to mention the gaping hole Johnny Boychuk’s pre-opening night departure to Long Island certainly put a significant amount of pressure on the men between the pipes, and we can argue all day about Svedberg’s viability as an NHL backup and that his overall numbers (7-5-1, 2.33 GAA, .918 save percentage) should have been worthy of more than 18 total appearances. The plain truth is, however- Julien did not put him into games with much regularity because he didn’t believe in him. It’s the classic saw- don’t tell me how good someone is- show me. And I get it- the statistics paint a better picture of Svedberg than he showed with his playing time and overall performance. But, in the end, Julien had ample opportunity to put Svedberg in and passed, instead going with Rask to the point that the body language seemed to indicate that Boston’s starter was frustrated with not getting more of a break (I would add, too, that Julien could have thrown Jeremy Smith into an NHL game later in the year but opted not to do that, either). The fact that no other NHL team was eager to line up for the Swede’s services after Boston informed him of their decision not to re-sign him tells you that the B’s coach is not the only one who wasn’t willing to invest in Svedberg, now playing in the KHL this year.

So, that brings us to the dawn of a new NHL season in Boston.

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

2. The view from here: Not much has changed in the state of Massachusetts since the team packed up their stuff and headed home after game 82. Rask is still the top man in net, entering the third of his eight-year, $56 million pact signed after the team’s run to the Stanley Cup final series in 2013. At 28, he is firmly in his prime and has a 2014 Vezina Trophy to go with his reputation as one of the NHL’s top workhorse netminders. Like Henrik Lundqvist, a Stanley Cup ring (as starter) still eludes him- he came oh-so-close against Chicago, but the Bruins have taken steps backwards since that first post-lockout postseason.

Rask played a career-best 70 games in 2015, and in the modern NHL, these athletes are physically capable of playing all 82 games, just as former Bruin Eddie Johnston was the last goalie in team history to play every minute of the Boston season (70 games, 4200 minutes in 1963-64), but physics and reality can be two different things. Rask numbers were down compared to his previous and personal best 2013-14 campaign, but plenty of NHL clubs would embrace a guy who posted 34 wins and a .922 save percentage despite having an offense in the bottom third and a defense that often played not to lose in front of him.

The questions that seed ongoing debates, however, is just because they *can* do it- *should* NHL teams entrust huge swathes of the regular season to just one player, then expect them to thrive in another potential of a maximum 28 games in the playoffs? What is the mental and emotional toll of playing so many games under the pressure-packed conditions that NHL goaltenders exist under? Some guys can handle and even thrive in that (see Brodeur, Martin) environment. Others, not as much. And- how effective the team in front of them is also factors into the equation as well.

Earlier this month, Rask told the Boston Globe this when asked about his 70 games last season and if it was too much:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2015/08/10/tuukka-rask-not-worried-about-his-workload-bruins-defense/FbOUF1PxG0QzHgvlAzkkTO/story.html

“No, not really. I don’t think you can put a number on it, but a lot of things depend on how tight the games are, how many games you play in a row, stuff like that.’’

“Last year happened to be 70. If it’s going to be like that, it’s going to be like that again. We’ll play it by ear.”

To those who would wave their hands dismissively over the concern about the number of games he’ll play in 2015-16, my response is- OF COURSE HE’S GOING TO SAY THAT! These players are professional athletes and competitors/type-A personalities! Furthermore, they also have a stake in not making public statements that would allow opponents to leverage that to an advantage against their own team. You can’t have it both ways, guys- you can’t question what players say when you don’t like what it is they are being quoted on, but then point to other things they say on the record with absolute certainty when it validates your own point of view. In other words, I would actually be critical of Rask had he come out and said “Yeah- I think 60 games is about my regular season limit and the team had better play great in front of me or the GM’s gonna have some work to do,” because you simply don’t admit weakness- even if that might constitute the proverbial elephant in the room. Rask played it exactly right, but whether he truly feels that way or not is something only he can answer and it won’t be in the Globe or anywhere else.

Rask gets criticized in some circles for not having won the big games for the B’s, but that is far too simplistic an argument to make and smacks of an agenda aimed at his cap hit. His $7 million AAV is a major bone of contention for fans who think the team can spend that money better elsewhere. The problem with that thinking is- just who, exactly, is going to replace Rask? It’s absurd to argue at this point in time (August 2015) that any one of Malcolm Subban, Zane McIntyre or Smith are up to the challenge of matching Rask’s production and trust. Which brings us back to the current situation: Tuukka Rask is Boston’s main man in net and still very much in the upper tier of NHL goalies at this stage of his career. Should any of the prospects emerge with the promise to stop pucks a the NHL level, Boston GM Don Sweeney will at least have some options to go back and evaluate Rask’s long-term viability with the team, but in all reality- trading an All-Star in his prime without anything less than a guaranteed return (not bloody likely) would be a fool’s errand.

The onus is on Julien and his staff to better balance Rask’s workload if they think that is the issue, but 10 shootout losses (the Bruins were actually 9-4 in OT during 4-on-4 play- a bright spot for them) a year ago says that what ails this team goes well beyond simply giving more starts to the backup.

3. Who’s No. 2?: As Yogi Berra said- it’s deja vu all over again. Boston is about to enter the season with a collective 31 minutes worth of NHL experience at the backup position split between Subban, McIntyre and Smith.

Subban survived a scoreless first 20 minutes against St. Louis in his NHL debut last year by facing only a handful of shots only to see things come unraveled in an 11-minute horror show in the second, resulting in Rask coming back in for relief. You can’t put that all on Subban, and a lot of ink has been spilled arguing that he would have been in a better position making his first start against the Edmonton Oilers a few nights earlier. Either way- Subban has the talent if not the pro experience to play in the NHL. The biggest issue with that is we’re talking about a soon-to-be 22-year-old who has yet to enjoy a run as starter at the AHL level. His statistical performances in the last two years with Providence are fine- indicative of being a first-round selection, but the one crack in the armor happens to be the number of games played. Last year, Subban was expected to take the No. 1 role and run with it, but it was the AHL journeyman Smith who ultimately earned Bruce Cassidy’s trust when the games mattered most.

Smith is back on the cheap with another 1-year contract. He played 39 games for Providence last season posting a highly impressive .933 save percentage. I actually saw him live in one of his worst performances (neither he nor Jeff Zatkoff had a good night in net) and although he gave up several softies in the first 40 minutes that had the Dunk Center crowd gasping in frustration, he slammed the door home in the final 10 minutes, making multiple scintillating saves before Alex Khokhlachev won the game in the final 180 seconds. Sometimes, we have to remember that way back in 2007, Smith was a top-60 NHL draft selection, so it’s not like he’s a nobody. At age 25, he looked like someone who was never going to reach the NHL, but one year later, my guess is- he’ll see time in Boston if nothing else changes. What he does with that time, however, is anyone’s guess.

Having said all of that- aren’t the B’s doing exactly what they did a year ago with Svedberg, who had started just one NHL game?

If I have to choose today the best option between the three goalies not named Rask currently under contract, Smith makes the most sense to be the team’s backup on opening night. But, I also believe the team is risking more of the same in terms of a heavy workload for Rask and very little in the way of a safety net should he get injured at all. For those reasons, I cannot imagine them going into the new season without someone like Jonas Gustvasson or Ray Emery or even Viktor Fasth on an NHL deal to build a little risk mitigation into the equation. If you just threw up a little in your mouth at that last sentence- I hear you. But this team has too much invested in the roster to simply throw caution to the wind and trust the youngsters at this point.

Subban is the most talented of the signed backup candidates, but sitting him on the bench for extended periods in lieu of forcing him to hone his technique and build up experience by establishing himself as a No. 1 at the AHL level would be a mistake. Ditto McIntyre, who doesn’t even have a pro body of work to reference. Does anyone really think that it benefits him to sit and watch most nights when Rask is taking the net and then expecting him to thrive when he goes in every fourth or fifth game? Just because he has the mental toughness and character to possibly do it doesn’t mean that he should. Finally- Smith has to be put on waivers to go down. What if…when the Bruins decided hypothetically to go with one of the kids to start the year, another team lost a goalie to injury and claims Smith away from Boston? It’s happened to Boston before and the results weren’t pretty. If you can remember the 2000-01 season when the B’s were forced to run with Andrew Raycroft and Kay Whitmore (all because Buffalo claimed the immortal Peter Skudra on waivers) in tandem, you get a gold star. That team, too, barely missed the playoffs and would have had a different fate had Byron Dafoe and John Grahame been available the whole year.

Malcolm Subban (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Malcolm Subban (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

4. Looking to the future: Between Subban and McIntyre, the B’s have two promising young prospects. But that’s what they are right now…prospects. This team, as currently constructed, is hard-pressed to make the playoffs let alone contend, so there is little upside to forcing either player into the 2015-16 lineup unless injuries or their own play at the lower level gives the team no choice.

McIntyre will play in the NHL one day. He’s got the right mix of talent and heart. But that day is not today, in my view. There’s a lot he can learn in the AHL, and while he undoubtedly would love to make the Bruins out of camp, he’s better served seeing some time at the pro level outside of the NHL pressure cooker. For now. But just because I think he should apprentice in the AHL first does not mean he won’t go all the way. I believe he’s got “it”- all things in good time.

I like the Daniel Vladar pick in the third round this past June, but I don’t love it. He’s the epitome of what NHL clubs are trending to: massive (6-5), athletic/toolsy guys in net that give shooters very little to hit other than their oversized bodies and long limbs. The problem with Vladar right now is that technique-wise he’s a hot mess…he’s inconsistent with his stance and positioning, lets in more than a few goals that go through him- hit a portion of his body/equipment but still squeak by (coaches hate that, btw), gets real scrambly at times with his play and I’m not sure about the mental toughness yet. He’s as raw as they come, but make no mistake- he’s got the things you can’t teach, so why not? He was a solid value where the Bruins took him, so no issues on that front. Like McIntyre in 2010, he’s a long way off from being NHL ready. Vladar is playing in the USHL this year and will either go the NCAA route or probably play in one of the major junior leagues next season.

So in getting back to Subban and especially McIntyre, people love to talk about the shiny new toy, but the Bruins have an obligation to cultivate and protect their assets, too. Rushing goaltenders into primetime before they are ready, no matter how much they’ve accomplished in junior or the NCAA, rarely bears fruit. There’s a time and place for it, and even Rask, who spent two full seasons in the AHL and this despite the fact that he was playing a near AHL-equivalent level in the Finnish pro league for two more years before he crossed the Atlantic, didn’t jump right in, and he had to work with Tim Thomas and spend a good deal of time sitting on the bench before he became the team’s true No. 1. That’s how it should work in most cases, and when fans apply that “fast food” mentality to goalies (Gotta have it hot and right now!), it’s not really the way the world works.

Zane McIntyre and Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Zane McIntyre and Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

5. The verdict: Some 2,500 words later we’re back to a basic truism: you cannot win a hockey game if you don’t score any goals.

Rask will give the Bruins a chance to win every night. Unfortunately, for those who fear the team being not good enough to make the playoffs let alone contend for a Stanley Cup but being too good to finish in the basement where the Connor McDavid types (how long before we see another one like him?) fall into their laps, Rask brings little solace. He’s kind of like an in-his-prime Sean Burke, whose at times brilliance on some very mediocre Hartford Whalers teams in the early-to-mid 90’s is one of the forgotten story lines of that era. Those Whalers teams couldn’t make the playoffs, but they were on the close-but-no-cigar side of the spectrum so aside from Chris Pronger in 1993 (Burke’s worst year in the Insurance Capital), they could not build through the draft (trading their 1st rounders from 1995-97 to Boston for Glen Wesley didn’t exactly help either).

Watch for the makeup of Boston’s goalie group to change before camp opens up- the team will sign someone on the cheap with NHL experience to provide competition and see how things shake out. If Smith is lights out, then maybe he earns the job, but as it stands right now, there are far more questions than answers with the No. 2.

The Bruins have a winner in net, but without a quality supporting cast up front, and a capable backup the coach trusts to give the workhorse some meaningful rest throughout the marathon of a hockey season,we’ll see history repeating itself in Boston this year. Unless something changes- even when on top of his game, Rask is not enough to make the B’s more than they are: a middle-of-the-pack, bubble club to make the 2016 playoffs.

(Thanks to Ali Foley for permission to use her photos in this post)