By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
(Welcome to 98.5 The Sports Hub’s The Weekend Wraparound — or just The Wraparound, WW, Wrap, or whatever you care to call it. I’m not big on names. But here’s what you should know about it: It’s a weekly column that will run every weekend in addition to our complete coverage of the Boston Bruins, with or without ice available.)
Boston Bruins backup goalie Jaroslav Halak is the most expensive $250,000 the team has spent in recent memory.
Now, I know what you’re saying: That’s an insanely stupid take, Ty, and I hate you. Your points are typically valid in this regard, but in this case, I am being 100 percent genuine when I say this. Set to make $2.75 million over the next two seasons — or $250,000 more per year than what Anton Khudobin will make on his two-year, $5 million deal with the Stars — such a payday is the B’s essentially saying that they believe that the 33-year-old Halak will be a clear upgrade over Khudobin.
Which is quite a statement, to be honest.
(But also completely within the realm of possibility if you dig deeper into Halak’s numbers, but more on that in a second.)
Throwing his completely unexplainable struggles as a capable backup when Claude Julien was coaching the Bruins out the window, Khudobin departed Boston with a 22-7-7 record and .915 save percentage in his two-year return to The Hub.
Including goaltenders that played at least 20 NHL games (but not more than 40) from the moment Bruce Cassidy took over as the B’s coach through the end of the 2017-18 regular season, Khudobin’s 70.8% point percentage ranks as the third-best among NHL backups. Only former B’s prospect Malcolm Subban (73.7 percent with Vegas) and Carter Hutton (71.2 percent with the Blues) had stronger point percentages than Khudobin. Hutton even parlayed his backup success into a starting gig with the Sabres. And among that same group, Khudobin’s .915 save percentage ranked as the sixth-best. His even-strength save percentage (.918) ranked ninth, while his .894 save percentage with the B’s on the penalty kill ranked as the fourth-best.
If you were looking for a goaltender that just straight-up gave you a chance to win when called upon, it’s hard to imagine the Bruins getting much better than what Khudobin delivered to head coach Cassidy and Co. for the last year and a half.
But that’s the exact hope the Bruins have with Halak. Yes, the same Halak that’s posted a 26-27-6 record (49.1% point percentage) and .912 save percentage over that same aforementioned 22-7-7, .915 stretch from Khudobin, mind you.
Now, it’s unfair to compare Halak and Khudobin’s performance in a side-by-side without acknowledging the fact that the Islanders have been an absolute disaster for the last year plus. Especially in their own zone; The Isles finished last season as the league’s fourth-worst even-strength possession team, while the Bruins were the second-best in the NHL. The Islanders also allowed the most high-danger scoring chances at even-strength play a season ago (856), while the Bruins surrendered the sixth-fewest (621). You’re talking about a 235-chance difference, which plays out a nearly three-chance difference per game.
Playing behind such an obviously atrocious defense most definitely hurt Halak’s raw numbers as well, and the B’s know this.
Over the last three seasons, at least 20.9 percent of the shots thrown Halak’s way were of the ‘high-danger’ variety. The highest percentage came in 2015-16, when 24.4 percent of the even-strength rubber fired on the vet Slovak came from prime scoring areas. Still, Halak did his part to stay afloat, with a .789 high-danger save percentage at evens over the last three seasons. Khudobin, for what it’s worth, posted a .785 high-danger save percentage at even-strength over the last two seasons in Boston.
“[Halak]’s action has always been above what’s expected for the most part,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney acknowledged. “He’s had playoff experience. I just don’t think you can win in this league without having a complement each and every night. We backed off Tuukka’s games last year; it worked out very well. Anton was a great complement, but again, you come out at the start of the season and your number one goaltender is not there, you better be darn sure your backup is.”
Where Halak also had a leg-up over Khudobin over this stretch is in mid-danger shots, as Halak had a .940 save percentage on those shots against, while Khudobin checked in with a .910. Considering that the Bruins have hovered around surrendering 35% of their even-strength shots from this area of the ice, Halak continuing to have such an edge over Khudobin (and with Khudobin’s playing time) would play out to 11 fewer goals surrendered by Halak than Khudobin. Considering that Khudobin was on the wrong end of 10 one-goal decisions last year, such an upgrade could pay huge dividends in a tight Atlantic Division.
But the one unknown in all of this is how Halak, who broke into the league as the backup for Carey Price, adjusts back to life as a backup goaltender. It’s clear that the Bruins have a target range for starts for the 31-year-old Rask — Cassidy figures that Rask will be at his best so long as he doesn’t play more than 58 regular-season contests — meaning that an optimal season sees Halak max out at about 30 starts. That also means there will be times where Halak is asked to return to the crease after longer layoffs than he’s probably used to given his recent body of work as a starter/platoon man with N.Y., the Caps, and Blues before that.
The dropoff, however, is not as staggering as you’d think. On three-plus days of rest under Cassidy, Khudobin posted a 15-7-6 record (64.3 percent point percentage) and .918 save percentage. Over that same timeframe with the Islanders, the veteran Halak posted a 9-9-1 record (50 percent point percentage, which again, comes back to the team) and .915 save percentage.
And if it’s any sort of relief, Halak seemingly knows the role he’s stepping into with the Bruins.
“I’ll try to help out any way I can,” offered Halak. “I’ll try to fit in as soon as possible. We’ll see what happens. I’m 33, I know Tuukka is a little younger than me. I’m just looking forward to be with him. I know he’s an elite goalie and he proved that every year. Every time I get the chance, I’ll try to help out and we’ll see what happens.”
No matter the numbers — both encouraging and/or discouraging depending on what you put stock in — what needs to happen is Halak immediately proving to be every bit the contributor that Khudobin emerged as under Cassidy.
After all, it’s what helped the Bruins be a truly complete team (almost) en route to the Eastern Conference’s best record. And nearing the end of what has been a relatively quiet 2018 offseason, Halak’s performance — especially in relation to what Khudobin did in town — may represent the B’s best (only?) shot at being more than what they were a year ago.
A make-or-break $250,000 if there ever was one. But also one that has numbers on Boston’s side.
Loose pucks: Love, love, love the Bruins going with the old school spoke-less B for their 2019 Winter Classic primary logo. Given the fact that this is the B’s third Winter Classic, they were considerably ‘short’ on old school logos. This beat going with oversized numbers on the front of their jerseys. Complete the look with gold helmets, please… A sign that the offseason is officially over? The Bruins will hold captains practices next Thursday and Friday at Warrior Ice Arena… Saddened to hear about the passing of veteran NHL writer Bob Snow. In addition to being one of the most thorough analysts I had the pleasure of watching/reading, Bob was one of those guys that would always give you an enthusiastic hello, and wanted to know you beyond the sportswriter. When I first announced that I was leaving my previous affiliation, I did not disclose that I was joining the Sports Hub (if you know my previous affiliation at all, you know why). Bob, who sat a few seats down from me in the TD Garden press box, immediately wanted to know where I was going. He had a few guesses — and also told me I would not be a good fit at The Boston Globe (one of my rumored landing spots) because of my ‘different’ personality, and you always appreciated that kind of honesty from Bob — and then I told him it was 98.5 The Sports Hub. He was thrilled, ear-to-ear smiling, and gave me some great advice that I try to carry to my work each and every day. The rink will certainly miss his energy.
Ty Anderson is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.