If I had to describe the Boston Bruin’s early season struggles it would be “injuries and youth.” But, the one area where there should be stability and senior leadership is in the position of goaltender. That has certainly not been the case with the lack of performance from veteran goaltender Tuukka Rask. The Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa explains the situation here (subscription may be required):
For the last three full seasons, Tuukka Rask fell short of the Vezina Trophy-winning standard he established in 2013-14. The Bruins believed they had identified why Rask could not meet the threshold he set while backstopping one of the most loaded rosters of the Claude Julien era: inadequate backup goaltending.
Because Niklas Svedberg (2014-15), Jonas Gustavsson (2015-16), and Anton Khudobin (2016-17) did not play well enough to earn Julien’s trust, the ex-Bruins coach had to start his ace more than necessary. In those three seasons, Rask dressed for 70, 64, and 65 games, more than the 58 he recorded in 2013-14 with the reliable Chad Johnson as his backup.
So far this season, Rask is giving his bosses evidence their theory was wrong.
Rask is on track to appear in 55 games. It would be his lightest workload as a No. 1 goalie since a 45-game run in 2009-10 (excluding the lockout-shortened season of 2012-13). In 2009-10, as a 22-year-old, Rask shunted aside Tim Thomas, who would require hip surgery that summer.
This year’s lighter pace has not resulted in better performance.
It has been a lousy start for both Rask and the Bruins. Through 12 starts, Rask was 3-7-2 with a 2.89 goals-against average and an .897 save percentage. Rask was unavailable for two games against Vancouver and Buffalo in October because of a concussion, the result of when Anders Bjork checked him into the Mass. Pike during a full-speed practice collision. He has been playing behind a JV lineup, most closely affected by the loss of stay-at-homer Adam McQuaid, and compounded by a one-line attack up front.
But the numbers are the numbers. They are not good.
Bruins goaltending coach Bob Essensa has long considered one metric more important than others when gauging his charges’ performance: save percentage on scoring chances. That creates debate on what is and isn’t a chance, an argument repeated around the league in coaches’ offices.
“It’s the one stat that, to me, is the best indicator of how our goalie is playing,” Essensa said during the Bruins’ annual coaching symposium in October. “For us, what’s a scoring chance? Typically, you’ll draw your home plate area. Not every shot in there is a scoring chance, clearly. Not every shot outside is not. So over the years, you kind of develop a good feel for what’s a scoring chance and what isn’t.”
Essensa’s base is .800. It represents good, solid, trustworthy puckstopping. Essensa believes goalies win Vezinas when they reach .830 or better. Essensa starts to worry when his goalies aren’t stopping four out of five scoring chances.
He should be worried.
Rask’s save percentage on scoring chances by Essensa’s definition is unknown. Corsica Hockey uses high danger as its terminology to define the best degree of scoring chance by factoring shot location, type of shot, and rebounds as variables. According to Corsica, Rask’s high-danger save percentage this year is .771, which corresponds to his performance in the heavy-workload 2014-15, 2015-16, and 2016-17 seasons: .763, .745, and .758.
In comparison, during his Vezina season, Rask’s high-danger save percentage was .827, not far off Thomas’s out-of-this-world standard in 2010-11 (.842). Consider the last six Vezina winners and their high-danger acrobatics: Sergei Bobrovsky (.857), Braden Holtby (.806), Carey Price (.849), Rask (.827), Bobrovsky (.837), Henrik Lundqvist (.834). Holtby in 2015-16 was a high-danger outlier, but the others were well into the sweet spot that Essensa considers trophy-winning stuff.
“We have endless numbers that get thrown our way,” Essensa said. “Endless analytics in terms of expected save percentage and goals saved above average. All these other numbers. But that’s the one: save percentage on scoring chances. It’s an easy one. You can do it at every level. That’s the one I’ll circle as most important.”
This year, through 15 appearances, Bobrovsky is up to his old tricks again. The Columbus ace’s high-danger save percentage was .870, second best after Los Angeles’s Jonathan Quick (.873) among No. 1 goalies. By traditional metrics, Bobrovsky is doing quite well: 10-4-1, 2.16 GAA, .928 save percentage. It is no wonder Bobrovsky is the second-highest-paid goalie in the league ($7.425 million average annual value) after Lundqvist ($8.5 million). Price will take over top-dog status in 2018-19, the first season of his eight-year, $84 million extension.
In terms of salary, the NHL has yet to unlock appropriate goalie value. But comparing his contract and performance to his peers, Bobrovsky is being paid appropriately. Rask is not. His $7 million AAV, which runs through 2021, makes him the third-richest goalie this year after Lundqvist and Bobrovsky. By that framework, Rask is not meeting his contract standards.
He is not one of the three best goalies in the league. Rask might not even qualify as a top-10 goalie, not when his current competition includes Bobrovsky, Holtby, Lundqvist, Quick, Cory Schneider, Corey Crawford, Devan Dubnyk, Matt Murray, Martin Jones, and Pekka Rinne. Price, currently on the shelf, has been even worse than Rask, but the Montreal ace’s recent history defines his 2017-18 play as a blip, albeit a severe one.
None of Anaheim’s four goals against Rask last Wednesday was a softie. Kevin Roy scored on the rebound. Josh Manson’s fling from the boards went in off Zdeno Chara. Nick Ritchie cashed in a net-front dish from Antoine Vermette. Corey Perry stripped Kevan Miller and snapped in a shot off Derek Grant, who was screening Rask.
But high-end goalies make saves they shouldn’t. The Bruins outshot the Ducks in the second period, 15-3. By the Bruins’ count, they limited Anaheim to a lone second-period scoring chance. Yet Anaheim scored twice.
Twelve appearances is a limited sample size. In theory, Rask’s numbers should improve as the Bruins heal and improve their chemistry.
But the team has enjoyed a light schedule so far. Rask’s workload has been on the dot. Khudobin (4-0-2, 2.35 GAA, .928 save percentage, .955 high-danger save percentage) has delivered results.
Rask will have three seasons remaining on his deal after this one. At his current level of play, it is an untradeable contract. The Bruins have no choice but to hope he’s in for a turnaround.
To the eye, Rask has not changed. He is one of the most fluid movers at his position. He makes saves look effortless. He is not a scrambler like Quick.
The numbers, however, indicate he is in decline. Rask’s play has created doubt about his long-term performance. Short term, there is no doubt about what he is: not good enough.