Bruins

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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Ilya Kovalchuk would still look good in a B's uniform for the right price

Ilya Kovalchuk would still look good in a B's uniform for the right price

As the Bruins lament the lack of scoring from the middle of their forward lineup amid a five-game losing streak, a viable option might be just about to drop into their lap.

The latest out of Los Angeles is that Ilya Kovalchuk is about to have his contract terminated with the Kings after last playing a game for them on Nov. 19 and essentially having been told by Kings management a month ago that his time with the organization is over. The 36-year-old Russian winger has three goals and nine points in 17 games this season, but is also a minus-10 and hasn’t been all that good at any point the past few seasons with the Kings.

Kovalchuk had 16 goals and 34 points along with a minus-26 last season in 64 games, but clearly wasn’t a good fit with an L.A. team nowhere close to playoff-caliber. His three-year, $18.75 million deal was viewed at the time as a questionable contract signed to an aging, once-great player coming out of the KHL, but it was the cost to win Kovalchuk over other teams such as the Bruins that had also shown interest.

Certainly, Kovalchuk is no longer the guy that carried the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, or a player that’s capable of putting up 37 goals and 83 points as he did that season. Kovalchuk is still a 6-foot-3, 230-pound winger that can shoot, score goals and finish off plays as evidenced by his 19 goals in 81 games the past two seasons while doing it for a Kings team that’s severely lacking offensive pieces around him.  

But if Kovalchuk is either bought out of his contract or granted some kind of release from the Kings, it’s still perfectly reasonable to theorize that the Russian sniper would reach higher offensive levels skating in a second-line role with a natural playmaker such as David Krejci. It’s unclear at this point whether any interested team would have to put up his contract or be free to sign him to a new deal, but there’s no question his value is down after two rough years in L.A.

Sure, it looks like Kovalchuk is a severe defensive liability at this point in his career given that he was minus-36 over the past two seasons, but there are enough responsible defensive players for the B’s to make up for it.

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What they don’t have right now is a finisher who can spark the second line, or somebody with a natural scoring touch for the second power-play unit as well. It was a problem Bruce Cassidy highlighted after the 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night where they didn’t get much of anything from their middle two forward lines. It’s the same kind of issue that dogged the B’s in previous losses to quality opponents Colorado and Washington earlier in the stretch of five losses in a row and earlier in the season when their Perfection Line carried them.

“The top line again was creating. We’re just not getting anything from the middle of the lineup in terms of offense,” lamented Cassidy. “You need four lines to produce for you in this league on a regular basis. It might not be [on Thursday]. It might be Saturday [at Florida], but you need some offense to sort of balance things out.

“We need some guys to get going here a little bit. [They need] to at least find their opportunities and then they’ll go in. I’m not sure they’re even finding their opportunities yet, so that’s step one that they are chasing.”

It will depend on the details, of course, but if the Bruins can land Kovalchuk without surrendering much in the way of actual assets or big-time salary for a player that flamed out in Los Angeles, they need to seriously think about doing it. 

If nothing else, he gives them a much better top-six wing option than they now have with Brett Ritchie, Danton Heinen, David Backes or Karson Kuhlman, and fits along the lines of whatever the Bruins are hoping to upgrade their forward group with at the trade deadline.

It may be that Kovalchuk simply decides to head back to Mother Russia for a big-money deal and eschews the NHL moving forward after he was a spectacular flop in LA over the last couple of seasons.

Given how interested the B’s were in Kovalchuk a couple of summers ago as a free agent and how little they might have to spend to get him for the rest of the season, the Bruins need to do some serious tire-kicking on the former No. 1 overall pick who could be a revitalized force playing in a top-six role for a deep, skilled Bruins team looking to fortify a Cup run.

 


 

Losing streak revealing a Bruins flaw that could be fatal if not addressed

Losing streak revealing a Bruins flaw that could be fatal if not addressed

TAMPA  – The problems are many when a team has lost five in a row as the Bruins have.

It wasn’t a desperate Bruins dressing room in the aftermath of their 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night at Amalie Arena, nor should it be. The B’s still hold an eight-point lead in the Atlantic Division despite being in the throes of their first losing streak of the season.

As Tuukka Rask said succinctly afterward, “We hate to lose, but we’re not going to go 80-3 or whatever it was that [Brett] Ritchie said.”

A strong, winning effort against the Florida Panthers on Saturday night would salvage a rough trip and get the Bruins spinning in the right direction in short order.

That’s not really the problem.

The issue with the Bruins is the same old problems that cropped up against the St. Louis Blues last June in the Stanley Cup Final and two years ago in the second-round series against Tampa Bay. The flaws are springing up again with a series of heavy, intense playoff-style games against quality opponents.

When the Bruins go up against opponents such as Colorado, Washington and Tampa Bay, the offense gets one-dimensional and the effort to score becomes challenging if the special teams are playing at a dominant clip. 

Bruce Cassidy sounded the alarm about it after watching another loss to Tampa Bay where the Bruins scored just enough to lose. There wasn’t enough going on offensively aside from the "Perfection Line" accounting for a first-period lead and a late, desperate goal from John Moore.

“The top line again was creating. We’re just not getting anything from the middle of the lineup in terms of offense,” lamented Cassidy. “You need four lines to produce for you in this league on a regular basis. It might not be [on Thursday]. It might be Saturday, but you need some offense to sort of balance things out. We need some guys to get going here a little bit. [They need] to at least find their opportunities and then they’ll go in. I’m not sure they’re even finding their opportunities yet, so that’s step one that they are chasing.”

Can Cassidy put his finger on what the issue is with the middle lines?

“Some of it is inside. You start playing some good teams that are fast, Colorado, Washington and Tampa Bay. It’s almost like playoff hockey in December. A lot of those guys in that room have lived it and they know what it’s about,” said Cassidy. “Make a decision, do you want to play that way or not? Then some of it is self-inflicted where we won neutral zone face-offs, and harmless kind of plays where it doesn’t get in, we turn it over and then take penalties against a potent power play. Is it the PK? Well, it’s a great power play and we really didn’t help ourselves in those situations.”

Cassidy is spot-on about not enough from the supporting players in the kind of games the B’s will be in the postseason. Jake DeBrusk finished with zero points and had zero shots on net in two of the three games against Colorado, Washington and Tampa. Danton Heinen had zero points and a minus-4 in those three games with five shots on net. Anders Bjork picked up an assist in the loss to Tampa Bay, but managed just two shots on net in the three games against the Avs, Capitals and Lightning. Brett Ritchie has zero points and a minus-2 in the three games since coming back from injury. Even David Krejci has no points, a minus-1 rating and just two shots on net in those three games.

The dilemma facing the Bruins is this: Is this just a preview of what’s going to eventually doom them in the postseason if nothing is done about it?

Certainly, the Bruins weren’t playing their best in the loss to Colorado, but the efforts against Washington and Tampa Bay were more focused and had the kind of urgency that Boston has played with most of the season. And it still wasn’t enough when push came to shove and underlying flaws came forward for a team that’s a little small, a little short on real scoring depth against quality teams and beatable going up against big, deep teams with a physical defensemen corps. 

One would hope that Don Sweeney and Cam Neely were watching closely the past week and took these losses for what they are. The Bruins are showing that they are going to need some help when things get tough in the postseason and that they could use at least one more viable source of offense among their top-six forwards.

They have a bunch of talented kids up front who have shown a propensity to disappear when things get tough against the hard teams and that isn’t going to help the Bruins much this spring. There’s enough of a sample size now to predict that isn’t going to change when it comes to DeBrusk, Bjork, Heinen and Ritchie. The Bruins need to do something about it ahead of the NHL trade deadline.

Whether it’s kicking the tires on Taylor Hall, or a more realistic target such as Los Angeles Kings right wing Tyler Toffoli, the Bruins have shown the past few games that they need some outsource things for help up front if they want to finish what they started last spring.

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