Bruins

Haggerty: Bruins have their Rask plan, and they need to stick with it

Haggerty: Bruins have their Rask plan, and they need to stick with it

The Bruins and Tuukka Rask hope they’ve refined the formula for his highest efficiency level after another season of mixed results. 

On its face, the 30-year-old would have seemed to have enjoyed a pretty good season with a career-best 37 wins and eight shutouts, the lowest goals against average (2.23 GAA) in three seasons and a strong enough finishing kick that helped push the Bruins into the playoffs. At the same time Rask tied his career-worst with a .915 save percentage and couldn’t play in a pivotal late season road game vs. the Brooklyn Islanders with their very playoff lives hanging in the balance. 

It should be mentioned, of course, that Rask did all this while dealing with a groin injury that needed offseason surgery, and helped play into his inability to maintain consistency in the second half of the season. The nagging injury and first half overuse due to shoddy backup goaltending forced Rask into 65 games last season, and it sounds like there isn’t going to be a repeat of that number moving forward in Boston. 

Rask said he’s healthy post-hip surgery and ready to go full bore when NHL training camp arrives next month, and is on board with a lighter schedule designed to get a more efficient performance out of the slender goaltender. 

“It’s good to get back and I was looking forward to skating this week, but they didn’t have the ice down at [Warrior Arena]. I think they had to pain the lines or something,” said Rask. “I think we are [on the same page]. Every season is different and there are games that vary in physical and mental strain, and you always take that into consideration with how many games you play. 

“I felt good with the [64] games that I [started] last year and didn’t feel like it was too much. If it’s 55 or 65, who knows? I think it’s going to fall between those numbers as long as everything goes the way it’s supposed to go.”

One would actually bet it’s going to be more like 55-60 games for Rask, and that will mean an increased workload for Anton Khudobin as his backup goaltender. It’s not a coincidence that Rask’s best season as a clear-cut No. 1 goaltender was also the 2013-14 season where he played just 58 games, and posted a 2.04 goals against average and .930 save percentage while winning 36 games. The other two top seasons of his NHL career were his rookie season where he appeared in 45 games while supplanting Tim Thomas as he battled his own hip problems, and the lockout season when Rask started just 34 games in an abbreviated season. 

It’s become clear to everybody involved with the Bruins that Rask is a No. 1 goaltender that needs sufficient rest, and is never going to be the Henrik Lundqvist/Cory Schneider workhorse type that’s going to lead the NHL in games started. That will maximize Rask’s effectiveness and hopefully avoid the situation that saw his save percentage dip below .900 in January and February as he hit a mental/physical wall of fatigue.

As Bruins President Cam Neely succinctly said back in April, “we’ve realized over the last couple of years that we just can’t overplay Tuukka.”  

“In the middle of the season, I thought we rode him maybe a little too hard. [Rask] broke down a little bit. Then he finished on such a high note, the player that we all know Tuukka is, and the competitor he is,” said Don Sweeney, back at the end of the year press conference. “He had some injury troubles that he was battling through the course of the season and really came back, after getting a little bit of rest, a better player. 

“He’s a big part of it if we’re going to have success that we expect to have, that he has to be the go-to guy and I think he proved that down the stretch and in the playoffs that he can be that goaltender.”

The other factor in all of this is the consistency of Khudobin, and making certain the B’s backup is ready to potentially play in 25 plus games for the Black and Gold this season. He’ll need to be better than he was last year when his struggles forced the Bruins to overplay Rask, and pushed Zane McIntyre and Malcolm Subban into emergency backup duty before they were ready for it. 

“[Khudobin] is very capable of playing great hockey. It’s just a matter of feeling confident, feeling like you’ve got the coach’s trust and then getting into a rhythm,” said Rask. “If you play every fifth or sixth game it’s tough, and you’re always kind of rebooting. So that’s not easy. Hopefully he can get into a rhythm right off the bat and we’ll get going as a good tandem.”

It sounds good in theory now to make certain Rask only plays 55-60 games this upcoming season, and it will certainly pay off in the goalie’s performance if they can stick with that strategy. But the discipline will come for the Black and Gold if the pressure comes again this season to overplay Rask at times, and risk running down a No. 1 goalie that only consistently plays like it when given a specific amount of rest during the regular season. 

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Haggerty: Stage getting set for an active Bruins offseason

Haggerty: Stage getting set for an active Bruins offseason

Given some of the contracts the Bruins have on their books, given their overabundance of young assets and given a couple of the holes that need filling on the NHL roster, it feels inevitable they're going to be active over the next few weeks.

First, there are a couple of key openings they'd like to fill on their NHL roster that they can’t simply plug in with their own young talent in the organization. Boston’s interest in free-agent winger Ilya Kovalchuk would fill one of those vacancies as a second line sniper-type that the Bruins could plug in with David Krejci and theoretically provide more balanced scoring up front than what the B's featured in their second-round defeat against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Clearly, the Bruins aren’t the only team interested in the Kovalchuk, 35, who has suitors on the West Coast in the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks among others when he becomes available to sign on July 1. Given his age and that he's been away from the NHL playing in Russia the past five years, Kovalchuk isn’t going to command much more than a one to two years at $5 million to $6 million per season. That’s a doable price tag for an aging game-breaker who should score 25 goals and 60 points in his sleep.

Certainly, Kovalchuk seems a better bet than Rick Nash, 33, who disappointed after arriving at the trade deadline while also coping with a concussion that really messed up his time with the Black and Gold. It could come down to an either/or for the Bruins between paying Kovalchuk or Nash a similar contract to be the veteran, big-bodied scorer on the second line. That’s a must for the Black and Gold given the small stature, inexperience and highly skilled nature of the young players Boston overwhelmingly features on their wing right now.

A little higher on the degree of difficulty this offseason is the longstanding search for a front-line, left-shot defenseman who could fit into Boston’s top-four. With Zdeno Chara turning 42 next season and Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk both undersized, puck-moving types, there’s a clear need for a bigger, stronger and younger do-everything D-man.

The Bruins have a longstanding interest in Carolina defenseman Noah Hanifin that goes back to their efforts to trade up for him in the first round of the 2015 draft. The Hurricanes are a team that appears likely to trade off some of their players amid a regime change. It won’t come cheap as the Canes will undoubtedly ask for left winger Jake DeBrusk in a hefty package, just as the Rangers similarly did in the Ryan McDonagh discussions last spring. Perhaps the two sides can settle on a package built around Danton Heinen or Anders Bjork instead, or perhaps the Bruins will have to look elsewhere whether that means Oskar Klefbom or seeing what Jakub Zboril/Urho Vaakanainen/Jeremy Lauzon could bring to the table.

As it stands, the Bruins will have somewhere between $10.4 million to $14.4 million in cap space after signing Grzelcyk to a two-year, $2.8 million extension, depending on where the ceiling for 2018-19 ends up between the projected $78-82 million. They have 10 forwards, seven defensemen and one goaltender under contract and still need to make decisions on their third-line center and their backup goaltender, along with a second-line sniper. So, it would be smart cap management by the Bruins to move some salary in order to give themselves some breathing room ahead of July 1. That’s why the names David Krejci ($7.25 million cap hit) and David Backes ($6 million) have been whispered around the periphery of league-wide trade discussions.  

TSN Insider Darren Dreger told Buffalo WGR Sports Radio 550 a couple of weeks ago that the Bruins are fielding calls about a potential Krejci trade. Dreger also added that the Bruins are "a little reluctant to” move their playmaking 32-year-old Czech center, but instead "would like" to deal away the 34-year-old Backes.    

What does it all sound like to this humble hockey writer?

It sounds like wishful thinking from a Bruins general manager who would love to move either of the two worst contracts - paying aging players with no-movement clauses - on their books. Of course, the Bruins would like to move Backes, who had a bad contract from the minute they signed him to a five-year deal. Backes has endured all kinds of injury and health issues the past couple of seasons, including a nasty concussion that ended his playoffs. He's settled into a third-line role after never really building any offensive chemistry with Krejci.

Clearly, Backes is making too much money for a third-liner who's averaged 15 goals and 36 points in his first two seasons in Boston. It also wouldn’t be shocking if the hard-working, no-nonsense Backes would be amenable to moving somewhere where he might fit into more of a prominent top-six role. Still, nobody is going to take on Backes unless A) the Bruins were willing to eat a great deal of his remaining $18 million or B) they were willing to take on a similarly unfavorable contract coming from another team.

All of this doesn’t even mention the fact Backes is one of the few Bruins forwards with size, strength, snarl and a willingness to go to the front of the net and jettisoning him would just be creating another hole to be filled on their roster.

“Hopefully he is going to be healthy. He went through...even he described it as a pretty difficult year," GM Don Sweeney said back in May at his end-of-season press conference  I don’t know if a lot of players are going to play through some of the things David went through this year. It speaks to his character. It’s a big reason why we went out and got him, and to what he was going to offload at times from other players on our hockey club that we all speak about from a core standpoint, and the impact they make from a leadership standpoint. It’s a lot to lump on players individually to carry that burden, and I think David’s done a really good job of coming in and helping in that regard and spreading it around. From a pure production standpoint, a little bit is determined where he plays in the lineup.

“Nothing against Bruce, but he’s putting together the lineup and did a really good job this year. We played him on the power play. His offense comes in spurts probably more so than what he used to, from a volume standpoint. He’s also playing with younger players at times that’s he’s helping on and off the ice. I think we looked at David Backes as providing balance in our locker room, on the ice, not just from a pure production standpoint. Do I hope he becomes a 20 [goals] 50 [points] guy again? Yeah, I absolutely do. I don’t know, that’s up to him. He hasn’t the last two years, but at times, if he was healthy, he was trending in that way. But a little bit depends on the usage piece.”

Perhaps there is less reluctance to deal Krejci from a Bruins perspective, but it’s once again an aging player experiencing both more injuries and less production at this point in a very solid career. If the Bruins found a team willing to take either Krejci or Backes in a reasonable deal, and either was willing to waive their no-trade protection, then Boston would and should pull the trigger immediately, if not sooner.

Instead, this feels more like Boston trying to float a couple of names they’d like to trade before going through the pain of trading a younger, more valuable asset (Krug, perhaps?) to clear the cap space they’ll need to make all their desired offseason moves. All the pieces are in place for Sweeney and the Bruins to make a few splash-worthy moves this season, but let’s just also B’s management doesn’t shake, rattle and roll too much of a roster that piled up 112 points last season while looking like they were onto something most of the year.  


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Morning Skate: Bruins right to pass on Hoffman's baggage

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Morning Skate: Bruins right to pass on Hoffman's baggage

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while NHL Draft week is upon us.

*The Ottawa Senators couldn’t dump Mike Hoffman fast enough after last week’s drama with Erik Karlsson’s family, and they shipped him to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday morning. The return was understandably underwhelming as Hoffman’s value was pretty much gone after the crazy story about alleged cyber-bullying by his girlfriend. Mikkel Boedker is an NHL player that will at least replace Hoffman’s roster spot, and San Jose included a decent D-man prospect in Bergman. But it’s nowhere close to what the Senators could have had for Hoffman if there wasn’t the significant baggage going along with him.

Some might have wondered if the Bruins should have gotten involved in discussions for a player clearly at the ebb of his trade value, but they were right to take a straight pass on a talented player in Hoffman that could be dressing room poison. It could be that this entire situation has some other explanation where Hoffman and his girlfriend aren’t as culpable as they’re being made out to be, but either way their rift clearly ripped apart Ottawa’s room at the end of last season. And it tormented the family of the Sens’ best player and leader.

Given that good chemistry is one of Boston’s clear strengths again after a few years in between, they don’t need a dark cloud hovering over them. They have good leadership in the room, but why add a potentially divisive influence like that simply because he might come cheap? The guy had 22 goals, 56 points and a minus-20 last season, so we're not talking Mike Bossy here. 

Clearly San Jose has no such reservations having taken on Evander Kane and Hoffman in the last couple of seasons, so good luck to them.   

*Looking at four potential landing spots for Barry Trotz after he resigned from his post with the Washington Capitals after winning a Cup.

*FOH (Friend of Haggs) Darren Dreger says that the Toronto Maple Leafs have put together a promotional video for prospective free agent John Tavares. It will be an interesting free agent sweepstakes to watch if the Isles end up losing him to the open market where many, many teams could use a star center like that.

*The new Seattle NHL expansion group has taken on veteran coach and executive Dave Tippett as a senior advisor.

*Rasmus Dahlin is poised to be the first real blue line star for the Buffalo Sabres when they take him first overall this weekend.

For something completely different: Boy, it sure sounds like the Walking Dead is getting ready to jump over a shark on water skis.