One season could be an outlier. Two seasons is a trend. Three seasons is a long-term pattern that doesn’t figure to change.
For the last three seasons Boston’s $7 million man between the pipes, Tuukka Rask, has been more ordinary than extraordinary, and that’s a troubling development. At this point it’s enough to convince this humble hockey writer that the Bruins will never win a Stanley Cup with Rask as their No. 1 goaltender, and that should become a real issue in the next few years as the Bruins build back up to contender status.
Anton Khudobin will make his third straight start Wednesday night against the New Jersey Devils, and that makes all the sense in the world: The backup has dramatically outplayed the starter this year. Just compare Khudobin’s NHL-leading .935 save percentage to Rask's pathetic .897, and the fact that the Bruins have pulled points from every single game Khudobin has started.
That’s all short-term stuff, but it's important as the Bruins are desperate for point to stay on the outskirts of the playoff picture. Long term, the B's are aiming toward being a Cup contender in a couple of years, when youngsters like Charlie McAvoy, David Pastrnak, Brandon Carlo, Anders Bjork and Jake DeBrusk will be entering their primes, and grizzled, winning veterans like Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand will still have something left in the tank.
But what of the goaltending?
Rask, 30, still has an impressive career .922 save percentage, and nobody can take away his Vezina Trophy or his All-Star level seasons. But his save percentages have dropped noticeably: It's a combined .915 in the last two full seasons, and is below .900 now. He’s become predictable in his approach to shooters, consistently dropping to give them high, open targets around the net. And it feels like he’s lost some of the competitive fire he had when he was a milk-crate-tossing prospect in the minor leagues.
The stretches where he gives up soft goals have gotten longer, and -- as is necessary with a changing, aging cast of defensive personnel -- Rask rarely steals games when the Bruins are outplayed. The organization has also come to the determination that he loses effectiveness if he plays more than 55-60 times ia season.
In short, Rask is being paid as a $7 million-a-year franchise goalie, but he's not playing like one. And there's four years beyond this left on the contract.
The Bruins will have to play him and pump up his value if they any hopes of trading him in the future. He'll have to be inserted back in the lineup at some point anyway, because let’s face it: Khudobin and Zane McIntyre aren’t the answers as his replacement. The B's need to draft, sign or trade for Rask’s heir apparent, and pave the way for that goaltender to be in Boston a couple of years from now when they're again ready for a Stanley Cup push.
Rask proved he wasn’t good enough to carry a talented Bruins team over the top when he crumbled at the end of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final against the Blackhawks, and he’s been spotty, and oft-times unreliable, in big games ever since. It’s time for the Bruins to begin the search process for a goalie that can take them on a Cup run when they’re ready for it.
After nine seasons, Rask has proven he isn’t that guy.