It was hard to look at the decision to bring back goaltender Tuukka Rask for what was potentially one final ride with the club as anything other than a win.
The numbers game? Could any other Stanley Cup contender say they have three NHL-quality options signed to NHL contracts? The financials? Rask’s pro-rated $1 million deal barely paid him half a million dollars. In other words, even in a situation with all three guys on the roster, the Bruins would be spending almost half of what they were at the goaltending position over the previous three seasons. And when you looked at the schedule, there was a distinct possibility that the B’s would need all three goaltenders. Oh, and Rask was one hell of a fallback option in the event that Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman — with a combined 20 minutes of postseason experience, all from Swayman in relief of Rask in Game 5 against the Isles last June — proved unable to lead the charge down the stretch and to a playoff berth.
But the one thing that could derail this ‘can’t lose’ plan has come to town, and just four games into Rask’s comeback attempt.
It’s now been over two weeks since Rask has been on the ice for the Bruins. He allowed five goals on 27 shots in that outing, and told the Bruins that he tweaked something in that outing and “didn’t feel right.” The hope was that rest would be enough to get Rask back in net during the team’s three-game road trip, which was set to include a scheduled, relatively stress-free start in Arizona. That did not pan out, and the Bruins ruled Rask out for their pre-break finale against the Kraken before the plane even made its way back to Boston. On Monday, the Bruins confirmed that Rask will not practice at all this week.
“He won’t be practicing this week, so we’ll update it at the end of the week or early next week,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said. “That’s where he’s at right now and we’ll see how it goes from there.”
The obvious bad news within that is that Rask has had a significant break between on-ice sessions here and whatever is ailing him (the belief is that it is the surgically-repaired hip) is still bad enough to keep him off the ice for what will basically be his third week in a row. It also doesn’t take a genius to see that math is now working against Rask and the Bruins.
Part of what made Rask’s AHL-free return to the Bruins so appealing was the light schedule in front of the Bruins.
They had home dates against the Canadiens, Flyers, and Kraken, along with that aforementioned road start against the Coyotes. And coming out of the break, the month of February is slated to feature two head-to-heads with the Senators, as well as games with the Islanders and Seattle again. The Bruins, who were always willing to give Rask ‘seven or eight games’ to find his rhythm, saw plenty of opportunity for Rask within that spell.
But you can’t take advantage of that opportunity from the injured reserve, and it’s an obvious problem.
“We all know he’s not where he needs to be. And some of that is just, he needs work,” Cassidy said during the Black and Gold’s last road trip. “He needs to play, he needs to play hockey games to get into his rhythm and get back at it. It’s tough to jump right into the middle of the season, so that part of it, we’re aware of that.
“He needs reps, needs practice, needs games.”
And the longer the absence, the harder it’s going to be to get Rask up to speed on an optimal timeline that works for both Rask and the Bruins and helps locks down the proverbial ‘pecking order’ when it comes to the B’s goalie rotation.
The Bruins like where Ullmark’s game is trending. Rightfully so, too.
Since Nov. 20, Ullmark ranks seventh in wins (13) and ninth in save percentage (.916) among a group of 28 goalies with at least 15 games played. This will also be the first playoff push that Ullmark has ever been part of, with the Sabres regularly eliminated long before the stretch run during his time in Buffalo. The Bruins are beginning to see how hard they can push his workload (see: that blowout loss in Dallas), and there’s certainly more to be discovered with some more 2022 head-to-heads against foes like the Lighting and Maple Leafs.
And the B’s aren’t afraid to give Swayman some run when possible. The Bruins still believe in Swayman as the long-term answer in goal, and for them, it’s really just a matter of when his time comes. There’s nothing wrong with that time coming now, but if it’s interrupted development, you have to wonder if there’s some slight pause there as an organization.
Still, the Bruins are fine giving Rask starts to catch up.
With an over 90 percent of qualifying for the postseason in a nearly-settled Eastern Conference, that’s a luxury they’re currently afforded. And assuming all three are healthy, there’s a reasonable belief that Rask remains their best option, too. But when do those starts happen? Because this is not a team that wants to be in the dark with their goaltending plans when Don Sweeney has to decide whether or not to mortgage more of the B’s future for another chance at a Cup run.
And the variables at play between all three goalies — and the trickle-down effect it’d have at a key time in the season — are enough to lead you closer towards the potential ‘mess’ the club first acknowledged when Rask made his plans clear.
Plans that have since become largely unknown given what Rask is trying to work through, too.
“That will be his call, obviously,” Cassidy said when asked about Rask reassessing his options. “He’s the one kind of fighting through — I don’t know if it’s medical issues, I guess, or body issues for his age — the comeback. So we’ll see how it turns out.”