Bruins

Haggerty's NHL Power Rankings: Playoff spots up for grabs

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Haggerty's NHL Power Rankings: Playoff spots up for grabs

There’s less than two weeks left in the NHL regular season and with only a handful of games remaining, every point means so very much. In the Eastern Conference, only the second wild-card spot really still seems to be up for grabs and only the Ottawa Senators (three points behind) are close enough to catch the Bruins for that last playoff spot.

On the other end of the spectrum in the West, the Los Angeles Kings are teetering on the edge of not qualifying for the playoffs and sit two points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the second wild-card spot. Kings players have logged a lot of minutes over the past few years, just like the Bruins in the East, but Jets D-man Dustin Byfuglien is also facing a lengthy suspension that could derail the Jets’ chances.

It should be instructive to see if LA has got anything left in the tank for a late-season rally into the postseason.

Without further ado, here are this week’s power rankings:

1. Anaheim Ducks (50-22-7, rank last week: 4) – The Ducks have won four in a row and they lead the NHL with 107 points. It’s another very impressive regular season for them as they wrap up their third Pacific Division title.

2. New York Rangers (48-21-7, LW: 1) - A big victory over Winnipeg got the Rangers back in the winning ways, and they have King Henrik back in the fold as well. Those guys are setting up for a pretty good run.

3. Nashville Predators (47-22-9, LW: 7) – Some impressive wins by the Predators over the Canadiens and Lightning as they head toward the playoffs on a good note.

4. Montreal Canadiens (47-22-8, LW: 2) – It’s amazing that they just can’t beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s kind of like how they just can’t lose to the Bruins.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning (47-24-7, LW: 3) – The Bolts probably should be ahead of the Habs given their thorough domination of them, but they’ll just have to settle for the perfect 5-0-0 record against them this season.

6. Chicago Blackhawks (46-24-6, LW: 6) – Big wins over Winnipeg and Los Angeles and Patrick Kane has returned to practice. Things are looking up for Chicago.

7. Minnesota Wild (44-25-7, LW: 13) – The Wild are 26-6-2 since the middle of January and they’ve turned Devan Dubnyk into the second coming of [insert Minnesota goaltending great here].

8. St. Louis Blues (46-23-7, LW: 5) – The Blues have lost five of six and got spanked pretty badly by Columbus and Vancouver in back-to-back losses. They are not finishing up strong.

9. Vancouver Canucks (45-27-5, LW: 11) – Canucks started off a big road trip with an impressive win over the Blues, but their work isn’t done yet in what’s been a very promising season for them.

10. New York Islanders (45-27-5, LW: 9) – At 4-6-3, the month of March has brought the Isles crashing back to Earth with a thud.

11. Pittsburgh Penguins (42-24-11, LW: 8) – Tough blow losing Kris Letang to a serious concussion after he was tossed by Shane Doan. The Penguins can’t afford to lose any of their top end players given the real lack of depth on their top-heavy roster.

12. Calgary Flames (42-28-7, LW: 16) – The Flames have won two in a row at exactly the right time and still have a huge game potentially looming with the Kings next week. That will be a real test for a young, inexperienced Calgary bunch.

13. Detroit Red Wings (40-23-13, LW: 10) – Big shootout loss to the Sens where Wings were having a difficult time generating offense with no Pavel Datsyuk in the lineup. Detroit limping to the finish line.

14. Washington Capitals (42-25-10, LW: 14) – The Capitals have gone on a solid 6-2-0 run since shutting out the Bruins a couple of weeks ago.

15. Boston Bruins (39-25-13, LW: 18) – A three-game winning streak is the latest upswing for the roller-coaster Bruins. The kill-shot win over the Panthers on Tuesday night was an impressive show of killer instinct.

16. Winnipeg Jets (39-26-12, LW: 12) – Bad time for Dustin Byfuglien to lose his temper and get suspended, isn’t it?

17. Los Angeles Kings (37-25-14, LW: 17) – This Kings group has played a L-O-T of hockey over the last few years. They just might not have it in them this season, but don’t count them out until the math says they are done.

18. Ottawa Senators (38-26-12, LW: 15) – Who knew the Hamburglar could hurt his back carrying the Senators?

19. Florida Panthers (35-27-15, LW: 19) – The Panthers battled valiantly over the last few months, but one soft Roberto Luongo goal allowed was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

20. Dallas Stars (37-30-10, LW: 20) – Dallas now knows that flashy scoring isn’t enough.

21. San Jose Sharks (38-30-9, LW: 21) – Things will be getting real this summer when the Sharks miss the playoffs for the first time since trading for Jumbo Joe.

22. Columbus Blue Jackets (37-35-4, LW: 25) – The Blue Jackets have won seven in a row and whetted the fans’ appetite for next season when Columbus is again healthy.

23. Philadelphia Flyers (31-29-17, LW: 24) – Tough year for Ron Hextall, who should be looking to shake things up this winter. If only they could play the Penguins every single night.

24. Colorado Avalanche (35-30-12, LW: 22) – The Avs need to hang their head in shame after losing 4-1 to the Edmonton Oilers and then getting stomped by the Sharks. Wait until next year, Patrick.

25. New Jersey Devils (31-33-13, LW: 23) – The Devils have lost six in a row down the stretch and need some serious youth on next season's roster.

26. Toronto Maple Leafs (29-43-6, LW: 26) – Credit Tyler Bozak for not going down without a fight in his hat trick performance against Ottawa last weekend. But that’s about all I’ve got for this dysfunctional group.

27. Carolina Hurricanes (28-37-11, LW: 27) – The Hurricanes are a tough out even now, but they’ve also lost six of their last eight games headed into the final stretch.

28. Edmonton Oilers (23-41-13, LW: 28) – The Oilers lost six in a row to start March and had won three straight with Richard Bachman playing strong between the pipes prior to playing the victim to the streaking Ducks.

29. Arizona Coyotes (23-46-8, LW: 29) – Tank harder, Arizona...tank harder.

30. Buffalo Sabres (22-47-8, LW: 30) – The Sabres have won two in a row. It might be time for Tim Murray to order a few code reds, and get some AHL guys in the Buffalo lineup for these crucial final few games.

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

There are a couple of inalienable facts about next year’s goaltending situation with the Boston Bruins.

The first is that the B’s have most definitely upgraded in that area with 33-year-old Jaroslav Halak as the backup to Tuukka Rask. Halak is a flat-out better goalie than Anton Khudobin, and should be a little more consistent than the Russian backup, who was admittedly excellent last season while racking up a 16-6-7 record as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

Halak, on the other hand, has won less than 18 games in a season only twice in his 10 full seasons at the NHL level, and has been a starter with the Canadiens, Blues, Capitals and Islanders with a career .916 save percentage over his NHL career. In case anybody hadn’t noticed that’s also been Tuukka Rask’s save percentage over the last three seasons for the Bruins.

Which brings us to inalienable goaltending fact No. 2: Halak is going to push Rask like he hasn’t been challenged since truly taking over as the top goalie in Boston.

The last truly competitive situation with Rask between the B’s pipes was in 2011-12 in Tim Thomas’ last season with the Bruins when the Finnish goaltender was backing up a reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Rask had temporarily taken Thomas’ job away from him two years prior during the 2009-10 season when he was a rookie goalie, and that sparked the best season of Thomas’ NHL career where he led the Black and Gold to a Stanley Cup victory.

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Since then Rask has had “just another guys” like Chad Johnson, Niklas Svedberg, Jonas Gustavsson and Anton Khudobin backing him up, and none of those backups had the kind of juice to truly take Rask’s job away from him. The best Khudobin could do was start four straight games for the Bruins back in November of last season, and that turned out to be one of the turning points in a 112-point campaign where Rask was significantly motivated from that point onward.

Halak could legitimately get on a hot streak in the regular season and force the Bruins coaching staff to sit Rask for weeks, or even a month, at a time, and that’s something no backup has ever been able to do behind Boston’s Franchise Finn. That should be a good thing and that is something the B’s are already counting on to happen for next season.

“We’ve talked about internal competition. Maybe it puts Tuukka in a better mindset. There were nights when Tuukka [played] back-to-backs. That’s a lot of stress on the goaltender knowing… I think two years ago we didn’t have a win by our backup at Christmas time,” said Don Sweeney, on July 1 after signing Halak to a two-year contract. “I’m not sure you guys wrote about it, but I did, and I lost sleep about it.

“I think we have two guys that have carried the ball for their teams, [and] that will push each other, that will complement each other, and we feel good that now going in every night. That is an area we aren’t going to be concerned about, hopefully. Obviously, it’s [about] the performance now.”

Now here’s the fork in the road where the inalienable Bruins goaltending facts and some good, old-fashioned speculation go their separate ways.

It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, but the addition of Halak for multiple years also opens up the possibility of trading away Rask if the right deal comes across Sweeney’s desk. The $2.75 million per season that the Bruins are paying Halak is the going rate for a top-of-the-line goalie, but it now also means the B’s are paying just under $10 million per season over the next two years for their goaltending tandem. That’s a whopping 12.5 percent of the $79.5 million in salary cap space, which is much less than either of the teams in this spring’s Stanley Cup Final (Vegas paid $6.4 million for their goalies and Washington paid $7.6 million for the Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer combo) shelled out for their goaltending.

In fact, only Montreal is spending more money on goaltending than the Bruins this season thanks to the awful Carey Price contract, and – along with the Bruins -- only the Panthers, Canadiens and Avalanche are paying north of $9 million in cap space for their goalies next season. For a Bruins team that was just barely in the NHL’s top-10 in save percentage and where the goaltending wasn’t really a demonstrable strength in the playoffs, that feels like a lot.  

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Rask has a limited trade clause for this upcoming season where he can be traded to eight NHL teams, and that “can be traded to” list gets bumped up to 15 teams in the following season. The Bruins did everything possible last season to make sure that Rask was mentally and physically rested with the 54 appearances, which was right around the targeted 55-60 games the Bruins had him penciled in for at the start of last season.

But even after all that rest and being given the high maintenance treatment, Rask still responded with a shaky postseason that was the worst statistically of his career. The 2.88 goals against average and .903 save percentage were the worst playoff marks of his NHL career, and Rask was an absolute disaster in their Game 7 showdown with the Maple Leafs. If the Bruins hadn’t completely shut down Toronto in the first half of the third period where they didn’t allow a shot on net (and didn’t allow Rask to even be a factor in the balance of that game), they probably wouldn’t have even advanced beyond the first round prior to their second round smack-down at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Rask was better in the second round vs. Tampa and added to his career highlight reel when he angrily fired a broken skate blade at the boards, but there are still some of the very same, nagging questions about Boston’s top goalie when it comes to big games.   

So why not start to explore what Rask could yield in a hockey trade, and even pull the trigger if the price is right given that Halak is there as a proven starting goaltender? There has been plenty of talk about Torey Krug being on the move if the right trade comes up to fit Boston’s needs, and there’s no reason why Boston’s All-Star, $7 million a year goaltender shouldn’t be part of that roster improvement conversation as well.

Nobody is saying to ship Rask simply for the sake of doing it, and clearly the Bruins would need to find themselves a young goalie they could groom as the eventual No. 1 guy to go along with the older, declining Halak. But the signing of Halak officially opened the door for the Bruins to at least toy with the idea of moving Rask in a good hockey trade to a team desperate for goaltending help (Carolina, the Islanders and the Flyers immediately come to mind), and that might not be such a bad thing for the Black and Gold.  

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