By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
If you happened to tune into the first hour of Felger and Mazz this past Wednesday, you probably heard Mike Felger and yours truly arguing about Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask. You know, like we’re going to do forever.
And as the Felger-appointed skipper of the Boo-Hoo Tuukka Crew (do we get shirts — maybe a mug?), I adamantly told Felger that the Bruins most definitely have the goaltending necessary to win a Stanley Cup, and stood by this.
I still stand by it, actually.
Of course, my on-the-record faith in Rask was rewarded with No. 40 surrendering five goals on 19 shots in a season-opening beatdown at the hands of the Washington Capitals. Of all nights, man. If my Twitter mentions were a deeper sewer throughout that dismal performance, I would have been hanging out with Michelangelo and Master Splinter. (That’s a Ninja Turtles joke, Felgy.) Oh, and Bruins backup Jaroslav Halak responded to Rask’s outing with a 32-save shutout on Thursday night. ‘Cause of course he did, as The Universe has conspired against me once again.
“BLEAHHH, How do you like Rask now, Ty? We all told you! You’re just blind to it all because you cover him!”
(As an anything-but-quick aside: Some of you people think I defend Rask because I’m on the Bruins beat. Let me assure you that we’re not buddy-buddy. We are not even friendly with one another. Two years ago, Rask and myself had a relatively combative exchange in the Bruins locker room. He thought he was interfered with on a goal, I did not. We disagreed, we made that known to one another, and on we went with our lives. Maybe he remembers, maybe he doesn’t. But since then, in the numerous interviews I’ve tried to conduct with Rask, he’s often been short, uncooperative and occasionally rude with his responses to my questioning. Even with the simplest, most warm-it-up questions one can throw a professional athlete in 2018. So if we’re “friends,” let me say that I’d like a new friend.)
But I can live with that commentary.
After all, my truly biggest problem with you Anti-Tuukka crazies is not that you’re not being nice to my buddy and movie theater pal. It’s actually just that every single win, loss, save, and could-have-been moment of his professional career has become psychoanalyzed to a point that’s legitimately beyond my understanding.
Now, is he as good as many would like to think? Probably not, and I’m the first person to sit here and tell you that.
There was a time where you would have considered him to be among the top five goaltenders in the league, but that time has since passed, and he’s now anywhere between No. 7 and No. 11, and that heavy range comes as a result of his inconsistencies on a game-to-game basis. Acknowledging this isn’t ‘protecting’ Rask. It’s just a statement of fact in a league full of good to great goaltenders with their own set of warts and wrinkles within their game.
That said, there’s just no chance he’s as bad as many have convinced themselves. Not even close. But if you do choose to ignore concrete facts for feelings and looks that indicate to you that Rask is not the man to lead this team back to a Stanley Cup, there’s just no way you can turn every single goal against or loss into a commentary on his career’s accomplishments or his ceiling to the Bruins and have the expectation that I’m going to take you seriously.
Think about it: The Rask Debate has hit such an absurd point that we actually look at singular goals against (singular goals against!) and use them to frame a new “this is why he’s never going to win a Stanley Cup” thinkpiece. Hell, I heard that during the preseason. And I read it after Wednesday’s loss to the defending Stanley Cup champions.
What’s really insulting about this stuff, though, is that we move forward with this as if Tim Thomas didn’t once let Alex Semin score an overtime goal from Terminal B at Logan Airport. That Penguin-turned-Knight Marc-Andre Fleury’s postseason struggles weren’t so bad he had to see a psychiatrist. That Washington stud Braden Holtby didn’t begin the 2018 playoffs as a backup to somebody that’s no longer even with the Capitals, or that every goalie that’s ever won a Stanley Cup “couldn’t win a Stanley Cup” until they actually went and won a Stanley Cup.
It’s hit such a ridiculous level that we’ve tried to convince ourselves that Wednesday’s Opening Night in Washington was another ‘big spot’ in which Rask failed to perform, and not just one of 82 games scheduled for the Bruins this season. As if Rask does not have 80 games to bounce back from a rocky start. As if he didn’t just do that last season.
We bring up Rask’s illness holding him out of the 2016 win-and-in finale lost by Jonas Gustavsson, but ignore the fact that he played through a significant groin injury in a successful push towards a playoff berth in 2017.
And when we’re not satisfied with the performance but don’t have much to offer in terms of legitimate analysis, we revert back to those emotion-based, completely unfalsifiable platitudes such as “he just doesn’t look like he cares!” As if goals only count for half if you come up short but dive across the crease and slam your stick in anger a few times.
We frame every single Rask event in a way that’s inherently designed to both erase credit and magnify blame; Rip seven wins in a row off and he’s simply doing his job or ‘show me that in the postseason,’ but lose one game and suddenly that previously inconsequential game was the most important start ever and only confirms your suspicions.
Do we do this with any other professional athlete — or at least the regularity that we do with Rask?
Now, this isn’t a ‘we’re not fair to Tuukka!’ column, but this constant microscope the 31-year-old goaltender is put under on a nightly basis is just downright strange and an exhaustive, unnecessary waste of energy.
I’m not oblivious to it all, really: While Rask has moments where he could certainly be better and play to his contract (like, uh, Wednesday), most of you were so captivated by Thomas’ wire-to-wire, record-breaking 2010-11 season that you expect that to be the norm for your goalie and not the once in a lifetime season that it was.
You only cling to the memory of what a successful goalie does because of that season’s ending, though, conveniently forgetting things such as Thomas nearly costing the B’s in the first round and almost singlehandedly putting them in an 0-2 hole in the Stanley Cup Final when he decided to challenge Alex Burrows on a wraparound 10 seconds into overtime. Without that Cup-raising finale from No. 30, Timmy’s playoff misses and ugly goals are surely mentioned in the same breath as Tuukka’s ‘two goals in 17 seconds’ meltdown in 2013. And you’d certainly hate Thomas for actually quitting on the team in 2012 opposed to missing a single game due to a stomach bug in 2016.
Fact is, most of you haven’t seen actually bad goaltending from the Bruins since the days of Jeff Hackett standing in the Boston crease in Montreal pads and John Grahame getting deked out of his ankles by unsuspecting curbs.
I mean, even Rask’s worst year out of his six-year run as Boston’s uncontested starter was still better than league average. And though you may try your best to discredit what Rask has done from a statistical standpoint (he might be the only player whose numbers are consistently ignored for what your “feelings” say and “eye-tests” tell you), the numbers speak to a talent earning his paycheck. Over the last four years, Rask ranks fourth in wins, seventh in save percentage, and sixth in goals against average among all qualified goaltenders. His even-strength save percentage ranks as the ninth-best among that group, and his penalty kill save percentage stands as the fifth-best.
If the Bruins can do better than that, market inflation from the time of Rask’s eight-year deal that’s left you on the hook for $7 million per year through 2021 says that it will cost around $7 million in 2018, if not more.
But without that option legitimately available for this team to acquire and provide a real upgrade in net — or without the courage to suggest a real name or resolution from those that hate Rask so much — you’ve somehow convinced yourself that Rask is what’s held this team back. Not the litany of other problems the team’s faced throughout his six-year run as their starter, ranging from trying to plug No. 6 defenders into a top-pairing roles to failures to score even-strength goals for almost an entire series against one of the league’s top teams, but the goaltender himself.
The good news: At least there’s only another *checks notes* 80 games of this.
We’re all gonna die.
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.