Elite goaltending has been among the most important elements of the Boston Bruins' success over the last 10 years, but the players occupying the net for the B's in the 2021-22 NHL season will look a little different.
For the first time since 2012, Tuukka Rask won't be the Bruins' opening day starter. For the first time since 2017, Jaroslav Halak won't be the backup.
Rask and Halak were one of the top goalie tandems in the league over the last three years, helping the Bruins finish top three in goals allowed in each of those seasons. They won the William M. Jennings Trophy in 2019-20.
Both of those veteran netminders departed the team in the offseason as free agents, although Rask could come back after the New Year if his recovery from offseason hip surgery goes well.
The Bruins should still be fine between the pipes without Rask and Halak.
One of the team's most notable offseason additions was the signing of free agent Linus Ullmark, who projects to be the starter Oct. 16 when the regular season begins.
Ullmark posted a 9-6-3 record with a .917 save percentage and a 2.63 GAA with the Buffalo Sabres last season. Those are respectable stats on any team, but they're even more impressive when you remember how historically awful the Sabres were in 2020-21. Ullmark earned nine of Buffalo's 15 wins the entire campaign.
The Swedish netminder tallied 9.13 goals saved above average during 5-on-5 action last season, which ranked seventh-best among goalies with 600-plus minutes played, per Natural Stat Trick. His .861 save percentage on high-danger shot attempts was the sixth-best among all goalies at 5-on-5.
Backing up Ullmark will be Jeremy Swayman, last season's rookie standout. Swayman posted a 7-3-0 record with a .945 save percentage and a 1.50 GAA in his first taste of NHL action. He was so impressive and consistent that B's head coach Bruce Cassidy chose the University of Maine product over Halak as the backup in the playoffs.
Swayman's stats, positioning and calmness under pressure were all fantastic. That said, most of his action came in empty (or mostly empty) arenas. Five of his seven wins were against teams that failed to reach the playoffs. The expectations and pressure Swayman faced were pretty low, too. So, while his performance was excellent, it's too small of a sample for fans to go get too excited.
We know Ullmark and Swayman will be the goalie duo entering the season. The real question is how will the games be divided up? If Swayman gets hot, will Cassidy stick with him? Will Ullmark have more of a leash because he's making $5 million per year through 2024-25? Even if Ullmark loses the starting job, his contract is pretty tradeable, assuming his performance doesn't nosedive. He's also just 28 years old.
The most likely outcome is both players getting at least 35 appearances. Keeping goalies fresh for the playoffs is crucial, which is why we don't see many of them start 60-plus games anymore. So even if Swayman is mostly the backup this season, he should still get plenty of chances to develop and prove himself.
The optimal scenario for the Bruins is Swayman becoming the No. 1 goalie as soon as possible. The Bruins are an older team in win-now mode that doesn't have a ton of salary cap space. Therefore, having a productive starting goaltender on an entry-level contract this season and next season would be pretty advantageous. Swayman makes less than a million per season through 2022-23.
Either way, the Bruins should be in a similar spot that they were the last couple years, and that's having two good goalies capable of winning games against any opponent.
Ullmark and Swayman also will benefit from playing behind a Bruins team that is well-structured defensively and kills penalties at a high rate. The Bruins allowed the sixth-fewest shot attempts, scoring chances and high-danger shot attempts at 5-on-5 last season. Unless the blue line is ravaged by injuries, Ullmark and Swayman probably won't have to win too many games by themselves this season.
There's still some uncertainty with Ullmark and Swayman. Neither player has ever been a No. 1 goalie on a playoff team. But both netminders are very talented, and the competition between them should produce some fantastic results.
The Bruins have some weaknesses entering the new season, but goaltending isn't one of them.