Goaltending was one of the major areas of focus for the Boston Bruins entering the 2021-22 NHL season because for the first time in almost a decade the starter at the most important position on the roster was changed.
Tuukka Rask spent nearly 10 years as the No. 1 goalie and put together a statistical resume better than any other netminder in Bruins history, one that included a Vezina Trophy in 2013-14.
For now, the crease is being shared by rookie Jeremy Swayman and free-agent addition Linus Ullmark.
How's this tandem performing so far? Let's break it down.
It was mostly expected that both goalies would get a similar workload early on. Ullmark is adjusting to a new team after spending the previous six seasons with the Buffalo Sabres and Swayman is dealing with the pressure and expectations of being a potential No. 1 goalie as a rookie.
Slowly easing them into the lineup is the preferred method, and the Bruins have mostly done that with these goalies essentially splitting the first 13 games.
Here's a side-by-side look at how they compare in several key goalie stats:
Swayman's numbers are a bit better, and they've been buoyed of late with his 4-0-0 record and .930 save percentage in November. Context is important, though. Most of Swayman's games have come against weaker teams. Only one of his seven opponents made the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Conversely, Ullmark has played against most of the better opponents Boston has faced. He was in net for both games against the first-place Florida Panthers and last week's loss to the high-powered Edmonton Oilers. He also played against the Toronto Maple Leafs and all their elite offensive skill. Ullmark didn't play too well in these tough games, posting a 1-3-0 record and giving up 3.5 goals per contest, but his level of competition has been higher than Swayman's.
One area where Ullmark has to improve is thwarting high-danger chances. As noted above, his save percentage on these attempts is a lackluster .676 at 5-on-5, which ranks 56th out of the 56 goalies with at least 150 5-on-5 minutes played this season, per Natural Stat Trick.
Some of that is the Bruins not defending well and the defense breaking down in front of the net. But you still need your goalie, especially one as talented as Ullmark, to stop more of those shots.
Ullmark's struggles on high-danger attempts is actually a pretty new development for him. His .861 high-danger save percentage at 5-on-5 last season was the fifth-best of any goalie who played 20 or more games. And he did it on a historically bad Buffalo Sabres team. He posted a .797 high-danger save percentage in 2019-20 and a .837 mark in 2018-19. So, there's reason to believe Ullmark will improve in these situations.
The most alarming goalie stat for the Bruins is their .905 save percentage during 5-on-5 action, which ranks 28th of the 32 teams. It helps explains why the Bruins have been outscored 27-23 at 5-on-5 through 13 games despite ranking in the top 10 of several puck possession and shot metrics.
Swayman and Ullmark aren't the only players to blame for this worse-than-expected save percentage at 5-on-5 -- the overall team defense needs to be better, too -- but this area must improve quickly. It's quite hard to make a deep playoff run when your 5-on-5 save percentage is that poor.
Swayman has started three of the last four games, so it would be pretty surprising if Ullmark didn't get the net when the Bruins finally return to the ice Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers. That said, Swayman has played pretty well of late, so it wouldn't be a bad idea to ride the hot hand and see if he builds some more separation between him and Ullmark in the competition for the starting job.
Cassidy even admitted after Swayman beat the Devils last weekend that the rookie has a slight advantage over Ullmark at the moment.
"He's been a very good goaltender for us and it's a good competition," Cassidy told reporters when asked about Swayman (5:37 mark in the video below). "Right now, he's a little bit ahead of Ullmark, but it's so early in the year that that needle has swung a little bit both ways."
The best-case scenario is one of these goalies establishing himself as the clear-cut starter entering the playoffs. You don't want to be searching for the hot hand when your season is on the line and the competition is at its highest.
The Bruins have plenty of time to find that goalie, so there's no need to be concerned. Ideally, Swayman takes hold of the starting job and you build around him for many, many years. But it doesn't really matter which goalie accomplishes this, just as long as one of them does.