In a five-part “Back to The Bruins” series ushering in the start of Boston Bruins training camp, we’ll look at different areas of the roster for the upcoming 2021 NHL season. Today, we start with the goaltending that should serve as the very backbone for a B’s core group pretty clearly in transition.
There are absolutely questions up front for the Bruins where the need for more secondary scoring is pressing, and where injuries and age will be looming issues this season. There is clear uncertainty on the back end as well with Torey Krug gone, Zdeno Chara unsigned and several youngsters like Jakob Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen and Jeremy Lauzon getting handed more responsibility as “the circle of life” for the B’s plays out at the NHL level.
But one place where the B’s should be locked, loaded and ready to go is between the pipes where both Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak get the band back together one more time. The Rask/Halak duo won the Jennings Trophy after leading the NHL in goals against average last season and Rask finished second in Vezina Trophy voting after going 28-8-6 with a 2.12 goals against average and .929 save percentage in the shortened season.
Clearly there were issues in the Stanley Cup playoffs inside the Toronto bubble when Rask opted out in the middle of the first round series against the Carolina Hurricanes due to a family emergency. That left things up to the 35-year-old backup Halak, who wasn’t great in posting a .896 save percentage during the five-game series loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Some wondered how Halak would do if he were left to carry the load in Rask’s absence, and the question was answered pretty resoundingly in a negative fashion.
By all accounts, Rask isn’t expected to opt out or experience any similar issues for this upcoming season with the Bruins expected to suit up for their home games at TD Garden.
“Well, Cam and Donny were there [in the bubble],” said B’s head coach Bruce Cassidy in a radio spot with 850 WEEI earlier this month. “When a player asks for a leave of absence or whatever it is, it usually goes through the GM first anyway, and it did. The timing of it, of course, I think it could’ve been better for [backup Jaroslav Halak’s] sake. Would I have preferred it a little bit sooner than that? Yes. But I can’t control what happens with a player’s family and the timing of that, so for me to judge that too harshly would be incorrect.
“At the end of the day, we know what Tuukka’s capable of. I think all that the players are concerned about, honestly, is, is he going to help us win? Is he going to help get us to where we want to go? When Tuukka came out and said, ‘My family’s in a great place, I’m in a great place, I’m ready to play hockey’, I think that’s all we needed to hear. Listen, we’re a family. We support Tuukka and we’re ready to go. I think the guys are confident that he’s back in there.”
In fact, there should be plenty of motivation for Rask to excel in net, avoid any distractions and prove that any issues of balancing work and home life were aberrational rather than a recurring pattern. The Finnish netminder will be playing for a new contract entering the final year of his deal with the Bruins, even if nobody is quite sure how long Rask intends to play as a 33-year-old goalie that’s made plenty of dough already in his NHL career. Rask has hinted in the past at retirement not being too far away for him, but he’s also made mention he wants to keep playing beyond this season and seems motivated to want to stick around in Boston as well.
In order to do that, however, Rask is going to need a big, wrinkle-free season before any kind of multi-year deal from the B’s begin to take shape.
What does all that mean for this year?
It means the Boston Bruins should get the best that Rask and Halak have to offer, and that’s still elite level when they’re both physically and mentally locked in. The goaltending, quite honestly, will be the best thing the Bruins have to hang their hats on this year with big time changes in store for the defense. Rask and Halak will need to be able to erase mistakes made by young defensemen that will surely happen in the early going, and they will need to be Boston’s best penalty killers with Chara potentially no longer in the PK picture.
Beyond that with Torey Krug in St. Louis and David Pastrnak likely out for at least the first month of the season, the Black and Gold might really struggle to score goals as well in the early going. They will need their goaltenders to keep the scoring against them low until their offense gets completely on track, and their PP gets its bearings with some new players involved.
Maybe this season with so much on the line brings out the very best in Rask and somehow catapults him to the transcendent place where he can finally lead the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup as their No. 1 goalie? That would be the ultimate “prove it” action in a season where the Boston Bruins are going to need optimal Rask, and Halak, to even have a hope of capturing the Stanley Cup once again.