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One of the things that seemed like a foregone conclusion coming into the season was that the Boston Bruins would miss the playoffs again, potentially prompting wholesale changes for an organization that seems to badly need them.
On paper, the blue line is terrible. On paper, there’s a Grand Canyon-sized drop between Patrice Bergeron’s line and the next-best one. On paper, it seemed like their offseason signings weren’t going to make much of a difference. On paper, you had to think their crop of AHLers who got promoted wouldn’t move the needle.
And yet, 18 games and more than 20 percent of the way into the season, they’re sitting third in their division and have a positive goal differential. More to the point, the shot attempt and scoring chance and expected goals numbers are very much there for them as well. Everything seems to be going well enough.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the cracks show up almost immediately. When the top line of Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak — 64 percent CF, 63 percent xG — aren’t on the ice, the margins thin out pretty sharply. Power play has been awful, scoring just eight goals in 18 games, and three of them were in a single night. They take too many penalties, and they’re near the top of the league in what you’d call “obstruction penalties” (hooking, holding, interference, etc.), which might indicate they’re struggling to keep up with their opponents.
As a result, they finished Saturday’s breezy 4-1 victory over Winnipeg — in which they outshot the Jets 38-12! — at just a plus-5 in goal differential. And the reason why they’re even in positive territory at this point has been a man Bruins fans have occasionally clamored to trade: Tuukka Rask.
After all, Rask is a $7 million presence on the cap, making up nearly 10 percent of the team’s entire AAV expenditure. And he wasn’t great last year, coming in at .915 when the league average was a .916 save percentage. But so far this year in 13 appearances, he’s got only two losses, and one of them was a 1-0 shutout in which he stopped 28 of 29. It’s not getting nearly enough play that this guy who was more or less mediocre last season is now lights-out; he has three shutouts in 13 tries and a .946 overall save percentage. It’s almost like Rask wasn’t the problem last season.
And while he’s not getting as much work as, say, Cam Talbot or Freddie Andersen, there are very few stats in which Rask is not extremely impressive. Among starting goalies, he trails only Carey Price in 5-on-5 save percentage (Rask is a dizzying .961 right now). He’s fifth against high-danger chances. Even with mediocre numbers on the PK, Rask has already saved about seven goals against what a league-average goaltender would have done against the same shots overall. And in the Bruins’ one shootout, Rask stopped 9 of 10.
Seven goals above average, for those scoring at home, already has him up a full win in terms of goal differential. Moreover, that means without him, the Bruins would likely be facing a goal deficit for the season overall. The fact that none of the backups who have gotten any time at all with them so far this year have a save percentage above .859 — woof — tells you plenty: Your options are “Rask” or “certain doom.”
What people seem to have forgotten about Rask last season — and even the one before that when they shivved him a bit for “only” going .922 across 70 appearances — is that he presented as an elite goaltender for years. From the time he became a regular in 2009-10 through 2013-14, he stopped almost 93 percent of the more than 5,300 shots he faced. Only Henrik Lundqvist and Cory Schneider saved more goals above average during that five-season stretch.
So the fact is that Rask has always been an elite goaltender, and that he had 64 mediocre games last season. And in fact, he really just had a bad first two months; in October and November last season he was just .899 (terrible), then went .921 the rest of the way (very good). Examined another way, you can simply say Rask wasn’t the difference between the Bruins missing and making the playoffs, and everyone understands that fundamentally even if he caught an undue amount of scorn this summer anyway. The guy is .925 for his career, and just about anyone can have a bad two months. That’s especially true because it was only the second time in Rask’s career it ever happened twice in a row.
The argument against Rask — if you want to make one — is that he’s theoretically a systems goalie. A product of a great defensive coach playing behind a Hall of Fame defenseman (frankly, one of the all-time greats) and an elite two-way center. That’s also the argument against Tim Thomas before him. But even still, I’m pretty sure you don’t get to be a .925 career goalie over almost 350 games by accident.
In a lot of ways, goaltending is the most straightforward position to evaluate over a long period of time. You either stop the pucks or you don’t. Pretty simple. And Rask is one of the very few guys who has played 300-plus games in the Behind the Net era exclusively — that is, since 2007-08. Guys like Lundqvist, Hiller, Ward, Lehtonen, etc. have that kind of body of work over the past decade or so, but most predate that line in the sand as well. We have a very good idea of exactly what Rask is and has been over his entire carer, and man, he’s really good.
Obviously, though, no one can expect a goalie to go .940 for an entire season. Well, maybe Carey Price, but that’s about it. And even then, you’d have to be pretty surprised by the performance. Rask will come back to earth, or at least his version of it. If he’s “only” .920-something for the remainder of the season, that really makes you wonder about Boston’s ongoing chances.
Again, they’re tenuously holding onto a positive goal differential and playoff spot with Rask having been Superman. If he’s merely his normal, elite self the rest of the way and all else remains as it has with the rest of the team, it’s pretty easy to see them slipping out of contention once again this year. Especially as the season goes on and all those old legs give out.
And when it happens, Bruins fans might be inclined to blame Rask again. But he’d have to be pretty awful over the last 60 or so games to actually earn that ire.
That “Tuukka Rask being awful” never happens.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: Don’t look now but Ryan Kesler is having a good season, at 8-6-14 in 18 games. Also don’t expect it to last: He’s shooting 20 percent.
Arizona Coyotes: Wow is this scary. Hoping for the best for Craig Cunningham.
Detroit Red Wings: Yeah I wouldn’t say a Thomas Vanek injury is the difference between Detroit being good and bad. I bet there are a lot of other factors why they haven’t looked good for the last 11 games. Like the rest of the roster, for example.
Edmonton Oilers: Hate to agree with a David Staples take, but this is a one-line team. Now granted, the one line is just about as good as any line can be, but you see the issue. Oh but thank goodness, to save me from the indignity, Staples is also saying “Kris Russell (44.4 CF%) is a reason they’re good.” That was a close one.
Florida Panthers: I hope Roberto Luongo can play like this forever. One of the greats.
Las Vegas No-Names: The team name will be announced tomorrow! I can’t even believe it.
Montreal Canadiens: “Price stops (high number of shots) as Canadiens win 2-1” should be the title of dude’s biography.
Nashville Predators: Hmm, seems like Peter Laviolette wasn’t happy about the Preds allowing a pivotal goal.
— FOX Sports Tennessee (@PredsOnFSTN) November 20, 2016
Philadelphia Flyers: How much you wanna bet that all Radko Gudas learned from the series of slaps on the wrist he’s gotten from Player Safety is that he’s only ever going to get slaps on the wrist for the way he plays the game?
St. Louis Blues: Seems like the Blues are starting to roll a bit here. Look out.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Well I guess that tiny little contract worked out for Steve Yzerman.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Shell the Panthers and dramatically outshoot a team in a 2-1 loss to the best goalie in the world: Pretty good weekend, process-wise.
Play of the Weekend
My beautiful son Connor finally did the damn thing. The way he settles the puck on the second and third goals — totally without effort — is the best thing going.
Gold Star Award
On the real let’s hope Jagr just goes til he’s 55. Get him on every team in the league for at least 20 games. Let’s go.
Minus of the Weekend
Alex Edler is lucky Marian Hossa shot when he did. Otherwise he would have backed up into his goalie, then the net, then the boards, then the crowd, then the outer wall of the arena, then the ocean, then Asia. Like, have some self-respect.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “SFD22” has an idea I support:
TO TOR: Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Leafs 2017 1st (no lottery protection)
SJ 2nd 2017 (or “last” of Leafs’ 3 2nds)
I live in a single room above a bowling alley and below another bowling alley.
(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)
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