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Here’s something that’s surprisingly disputed (but really should not be): Boston Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask
is elite. But it’s Rask, who has one Vezina to his name (2014), that has found himself in a rather strange position for the second earlier-than-expected offseason in a row.
When it all fell apart for the Black and Gold on the 82nd game of the season back in April, Rask was not on the ice. Nor was he on the bench. In fact, the Bruins were lucky to get the 29-year-old -- suffering from a virus of some sort -- out on the ice for the pregame warmup skate. With Rask unavailable, it was Jonas Gustavsson
that got his head kicked in instead (not that it would have mattered who was in net), as the Bruins collapse out of the postseason picture with a 6-1 loss to Ottawa.
But it prompted discussion as to the value of Rask. And whether or not he should be the guy for the B’s.
At $7 million per year, Rask is one of the league’s most expensive netminders and could bring back a significant haul in a trade. It could be the one move to accelerate the rebuild/retool, too, which would be welcomed to most. So the question had to be asked: Is Rask a player the Bruins would consider trading?
“It would absolutely depend,” B’s general manager Don Sweeney
said when asked if Rask is among the ‘untouchables’ in a trade. “I think Tuukka Rask is an excellent goaltender. Do I think he came out of the gate a little slower this year than we would’ve liked? Yes. Do I think he finished up being sick at two times that were inopportune? Yes. That’s not necessarily Tuukka’s fault. Do I think we had areas when we broke down a little bit defensively with, as I said, newer players? Yes.
“But he’d be the first to sit up here and tell you that he would like to have made a couple of those saves at key opportune times. You know in the Jersey game where we have three two-on-ones in the first period and a breakaway they had 15 shots over the course of the game- he would’ve liked to have made that second power play shot going across the slot. He’d be the first to tell you that. And I like that about Tuukka. He’s driven to win and he has been part of a winning organization, his Olympic experience…we believe he’s a damn good goaltender and I’m not inclined to giving that away.”
Under contract through 2021, Rask does have a no-movement clause (it becomes a modified no-trade beginning in 2017), and was asked about his willingness to accommodate a trade if it comes about.
“Well if you’re not wanted, then you really don’t have any options, but I doubt that’s going to happen,” Rask said back in April. “As I said, I’m here for the long run, and I want to help this team to get back on track, and that’s where my head’s at. But if you wouldn’t be wanted, then what can you do?”
Rask wants to be here. And though slightly vaguer than you’d like, I think Sweeney wants him here, too. But how about the team president, with the weight of the world on his shoulders and his job security directly tied to how this team progresses forward next season, Cam Neely
“Well, Patrice [Bergeron] is a pretty special player that everybody should be pleased that they have an opportunity to watch play. I certainly enjoy the way he plays, his commitment, his dedication. Everything about him is what we want a Bruin to be,” Neely, the team president since 2010, gushed when asked about Rask’s status as a foundational player and if there any untouchables on the B’s roster. “But if there are opportunities to improve our club we have to look at them. We have to be honest and assess and look at them. I don’t know if Don [Sweeney] was just being vague, but you don’t really know what’s out there and if someone comes knocking at your door you’ve got to listen.”
Neely has repeatedly mentioned that he doesn’t need to let everyone know that he’s the boss, and that he doesn’t want to micromanage Sweeney into doing a bad job, but there’s obvious pressure for the Bruins to make a big splash this summer and return to the postseason. The latter there, of course, has to happen next spring or heads will roll. I mean, the last time the Bruins missed the playoffs three years in a row was at the end of their eight-year playoff drought in the 1960s, so to suggest that this would be ‘the norm’ or anything OK to being ‘the norm’ would be a gross mischaracterization of this franchise.
And it’s admittedly hard to find a player whose return in a trade would make a bigger splash than Rask. It might be the only way the Bruins find that 'young, controlled defenseman' and the perfect replacement for pending unrestricted free agent Loui Eriksson. And another goalie.
But Rask remains the biggest game-changer the Bruins have in their organization. That’s what the Bruins should consider and realize this summer. If the Bruins want their Vezina caliber goaltender to be that on a more consistent basis, there has to be an upgrade to the team in front of him, especially when it comes to their own-zone play. Whether that’s another top-four defenseman (something they, and everyone else in this league, badly crave) or a stronger five-man presence out there (the Bruins’ fourth line was a liability for much of the season), Rask will do better with more support. Period.
The ‘Trade Rask’ proponents (and there’s a lot of them, a lot more than I thought, to be honest) will claim that a goaltender making $7 million shouldn’t need a ton of support, and I think that they have a point, sure, but when that goaltender is behind a ragtag defensive mix that featured one legitimate top-pairing defender and six or seven middle-of-the-pack guys, it’s hard to shine on a consistent basis. Rask’s 2015-16 campaign was the perfect picture of that, as stellar months (December, and February through March) were sandwiched around subpar months in October, November, and January. And, of course, a missed start in April.
One that left more than Rask feeling ill in regards to what’s next for the franchise.
Ty Anderson has been covering the National Hockey League for HockeyBuzz.com since 2010, has been a member of the Pro Hockey Writers Association's Boston Chapter since 2013, and can be contacted on Twitter, or emailed at Ty.AndersonHB[at]gmail.com.