By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Welcome to the third part of a three-part series previewing the 2018-19 Boston Bruins. Click here for the first part, which focused in on Boston’s forward unit, and its countless forwards looking to avoid a second-year slump, and click here for the second part, which focused on Boston’s defense.
Kicking off the most comprehensive coverage in town, we take a look at a Boston goaltending damn built with competition in mind, as the Bruins hope that Tuukka Rask will be pushed by newly signed backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak after a four-year, here’s-every-kind-of-challenge-possible run with the New York Islanders.
Jaroslav Halak: Listen, if we’re going on wins-losses alone, it was going to be pretty damn hard for the Bruins to find a legitimate upgrade over Anton Khudobin. Especially if you just look at what Khudobin did with Bruce Cassidy as the team’s head coach, with a a 22-7-7 record and .915 save percentage (and that 70.8 point percentage actually ranked as the third-best among all NHL backups from when Cassidy took over in Feb. 2017 through last season).
But the Black and Gold certainly found a capable option in Islander-turned-Bruin Jaroslav Halak, who was signed to a two-year deal worth $2.75 million per season earlier this summer, and the numbers prove exactly that.
Now, Halak comes to the Bruins on the heels of a seemingly mediocre 20 wins and .908 save percentage in 52 decisions. Then you realize he was downright under siege in Brooklyn. Over the last three seasons, at least 20.9 percent of the shots thrown Halak’s way were of the ‘high-danger’ variety. Still, Halak did his part to stay afloat, with a .789 high-danger save percentage at evens over those 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.
And while it’s hardly a foolproof plan to read into preseason performances, Halak looked like somebody you could trust in his preseason outings, and more than handled what were heavy workloads against the Flames and Red Wings.
“It was an area that we wanted to address this past offseason that we felt we would have a tandem going into an 82-game schedule that Bruce would be very comfortable playing either one in any situation,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said of Halak’s addition. “We’ve mapped out sort of month-by-month what the work load would be.”
The 33-year-old Halak, meanwhile, has expressed no issues with being a backup.
Tuukka Rask: Ah, yes. My best friend. Apple of my eye. Keeper of my crease. This according to Mike Felger, of course. (Little do you all know that Rask and I have never, ever, ever had a legitimately pleasant conversation. I’m 90 percent sure the guy hates my guts, and he shows with his utter disdain for each and every question I ask him.)
Alas, I embrace my role as a card-carrying member of your Boo-Hoo Tuukka Crew. Otherwise known as a rational person that believes Rask is neither the best nor the worst, but still a goaltender capable of winning big games.
Just because I’m a glutton for punishment, let’s take a look back at Rask’s 2017-18 one final time…
He was terrrrible out of the gate. It wasn’t so much the numbers that stunk as much as it was Rask’s inability to come up with the big saves the team needed when they were pressuring at the other end. He nearly lost his starting gig to Khudobin, too, but he rebounded with a point in all but six of his final 40 decisions. His .923 save percentage over that span was the fifth-best among qualified goaltenders, and his .933 save percentage at even-strength was the third-best.
And when Rask has a terrible first-round showing against the Maple Leafs, he arguably singlehandedly kept the Bruins in their five-game mismatch against the Lightning. Rask’s Bruins trailed for a total of 133:19 with Rask in net in that five-game series, but it was over that span that Rask stopped four of the 64 shots thrown his way, good for a .938 save percentage when trailing. He also stopped all but two of the 26 high-danger chances thrown his way. Good enough!
If you don’t think you can win with this player, you’re crazy. Absolutely crazy.
Anyway, he should probably only play 53 games this season at the very most.
NEXT IN LINE
Providence Bruins veteran Zane McIntyre is your No. 3 on the depth chart. McIntyre took a statistical step back with the P-Bruins a season ago, as he experienced a .016 dip in his save percentage and saw his goals against average raise 0.49. The 26-year-old has appeared in eight NHL games in his career, with an 0-4-1 record and .858 save percentage.
McIntyre is likely entering a platoon with Daniel Vladar. The towering 6-foot-5 netminder posted a 17-18-1 record and .911 save percentage in 41 ECHL games a season ago, but has been solid in his AHL showings, with a 6-2-2 record and .922 save percentage in his small AHL sample size over the last two seasons.
The 21-year-old also looked extremely poised during Boston’s preseason, and certainly caught Sweeney’s eye.
“I think Daniel Vladar took a real step this past summer,” Sweeney said. “[Vladar] looks like he’s ready to take another step and push Zane [McIntyre] for playing time in Providence. They’re still inexperienced at the NHL level, so that’s a concern when you have injuries, as anybody would be.”
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness: Consistency.
But if Rask has a repeat of his 2017-18 start, the Bruins are going to have to hope that Halak finds his game early. If Halak struggles early, though, the Bruins are going to have to go with Rask more than they’d like (especially early in the season) or continue to roll a struggling Halak and hope he finds his game without costing the team winnable games.
If they’re on point, though, the Bruins have a legitimate chance of matching their 50-win total from a season ago. Even if the Bruins experience a sophomore slump from some of their younger talents.
There’s two players, and I’ve already written extensive notes, thoughts, and predictions on both. So, let’s go off the board here: The Bruins’ x-factor will be how they handle their back-to-backs. In four starts with the team on the second leg of a back-to-back last season, Rask went winless and posted a subpar .864 save percentage. Khudobin, meanwhile, posted a 6-3-2 record with a .919 save percentage. The Bruins, by the way, have 13 back-to-backs this season. If Halak can come close to matching what Khudobin did in this situation, the B’s plans to rest Rask should go just fine.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has also been a voting member of the Boston Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association since 2013. 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.