You're probably wrong about Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask

Ty Anderson
March 29, 2017 - 8:17 pm

The Bruins have mismanaged Tuukka Rask for the third year in a row. (Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports)

You’re wrong about Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask.

That is if you truly believe that Rask doesn’t want to play in big games. That is if you sincerely believe that Rask fakes an injury every time he needs to step up with a big game. That is if you buy into any of the sports radio hyperbole drummed up whenever the 30-year-old Rask misses a start of any sort, and that is if you for a single second believe that Rask is ‘stealing’ his $7 million salary from the Black and Gold. 

Not only are you wrong, actually, but you sound like a good old fashioned dummy and need to stop. 

Listen, I’ll be the first to tell you that Rask stunk up the joint last week against the Lightning. But consider the fact that it was his third game in four nights (a stupidly dangerous workload for late March, no matter your salary), and he said that he suffered a lower-body injury during the game. Given how dominant Rask was in the beginning stages of that game -- the Bruins do not escape that first period tied if not for Rask’s stellar play in his crease, as Rask came up big stop after big stop -- and the fact that the later the game went on, the worse Rask got, that seems totally believable. 

But don’t worry, he was faking and he just wants the offseason to come at the same time it has the last two seasons. Not because that’s factually correct (it’s absolutely not), but because that’s what will sell and Rask is the easiest of targets now that Claude Julien is finally gone. 

Now, has Rask struggled for large chunks of the second half? Of course. Like I said, there are some things you just can’t deny and his numbers tell a bummer of a tale for Bruins fans. But let’s not act as if this is happening because it’s the most important time of the season. 

The truth is actually that the B’s screwed this one up long ago. 

Before Bruce Cassidy replaced Julien as the team’s coach, even.

From Oct. 22 to Feb. 2 (103 days), the Bruins played a league-high 50 games. Rask played in 40 (40!) of those 50 games, which ranked as the third-most in the NHL over that span, and that number likely would have been even higher had it not been for a three-game absence because of a lower-body injury in late October. The Bruins went on to lose all three of those games, by the way, and they weren't even close. That was also an injury that Rask, at the time, said would take at least a month of rest to fully heal (which is something he acknowledged as not even remotely possible). Still, Rask rolled with 22 wins and a .910 save percentage (13th-best among starters over that span). The worst part of that run for Rask came in its final weeks, as he had just seven wins and an .882 save percentage (the worst among NHL starters) in the final 15 games of that segment. Rask was thrice injured in that span, too, once with a puck to the throat, another time with a ‘popped’ groin in Washington, and the migraine that forced him out of action in a Sunday matinee in Pittsburgh.

Julien, desperate by late January after the B’s blew points left and right, had Rask on a grueling 66-start pace.

If this were the Oregon Trail, Rask would’ve been dead before hitting Nebraska. 

“He wants to play as many games as possible,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said of Rask back in October. “We’ve looked at the balance of the schedule and the compression of things to try and put Tuukka and our team in the best situation. Having Anton [Khudobin] and Malcolm [Subban] as part of that is very important. You’re going to need the depth of your hockey club this year to get through the type of season we’re going to face this year with the scheduling challenges.”

(Subban, a former first-round pick, was not and has not been of the equation for the B’s, and Khudobin was rocky at best back then.)

This team should have known better. Their utter lack of awareness when it came to managing Rask’s workload that early in the season, especially after they watched him and their playoff chances -- a coincidence, I’m sure -- fade into dust in back-to-back stretch runs, borders on criminal. 

After all, 2015 and 2016 told you that Rask is not a workhorse that you can roll out for 60-plus games and still get his best from him. After the 55th game of his season in 2015, Rask had seven wins and a .925 save percentage in 15 games to finish the season. After his 55th game last year, Rask had three wins and an .889 save percentage in nine games to close out the campaign. And following 55th game of this season, Rask has one win and an .867 save percentage in five games, and that one win came with last night’s 24-of-25 show-you-up effort against the Predators.

That’s not a slight against Rask, either, but moreso a commentary on how his frame (6-foot-3 and about 180 pounds) is not necessarily one built for the rigors of 70-game grinds. That is a workload best left to the likes of goalies such as Martin Brodeur, who in between eating bagels and drinking Sprite, posted 70-start seasons in 10 of 11 seasons from 1998 to 2010. 

That’s something that Cassidy admitted, too, but long after the damage was already done. 

“He's not a 240-pound goaltender who can handle all that workload - every game, every year,” Cassidy said after Monday’s practice, Rask’s first after a weekend off. “And we probably overused him at the start of the year and it’s been documented again so that this time of the year it gets tougher and tougher -- on any player that’s overplayed. You’ve seen it with other players as well.”

One of two goaltenders to skate in over 11,000 minutes since 2014 (Capitals goalie Braden Holtby is the other), and behind a defense that’s gotten worse and older and/or younger (read as: inexperienced) for the most part over that span, the workload has become the club's yearly nightmare. 

“The workload for Tuukka has to be monitored, and whether the whole world agrees with it or not, that’s the situation. I think the data backs up that he’s better with X amount of rest and that’s just the way it is. It’s an inexact science and we’re trying to do a better job with that,” Cassidy said of Rask. “The second half we’ve really tried to monitor it and last week was a bit of an exception.”

The numbers back Cassidy up, too. Rask has 17 wins and a .917 save percentage in 27 games this year with at least two days of rest between starts in (including a potent 10-4-0 record and .933 save percentage with three-plus days between games), versus 17 wins and a .908 save percentage in 33 games with fewer than two days of rest.

Rest, in those rare situations where it's actually given to No. 40, clearly works. 

So when we look at the struggles of Rask in recent days, it’s straight-up stupid to suggest that it’s because it’s closer to crunch time and that Rask is packing it in and not because he’s been spent since about February. It’s also hilarious when Rask is viciously hammered when he struggles in his third game in three nights -- the performances got worse as the week went on, which clearly indicated Rask’s need for a night off -- but is not credited with putting this team on his back to even put them in a playoff position in the first place when the team regularly struggled to score two goals a night from October to December. 

It’s similar to when Rask is blamed for the team’s Game 6 loss in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final to the Blackhawks with two goals allowed in 17 seconds, but failed to get credit for his historic numbers in a four-game sweep of the Penguins the round before to even get them there in the first place. Or like when his $7 million contract is held against him while forgetting that it was right after he backstopped the club to that Cup Final appearance (something that, again, doesn’t happen without him), and that Rask took a team-friendly, prove-it deal the season before to show that he could be this team’s ace. Or when he’s blamed for not playing through food poisoning last year, as if that would have benefitted anybody, and as if the Bruins needed Rask to beat a Sens group that was pure garbage. 

Laziness is the name of the game when it comes to most Rask narratives thrown out there by a fanbase that absolutely needs a scapegoat at all times. The stubborn refusal to look back at how you got there in the first place is often a close second, and sometimes takes the lead given the situation.

But this crowd does have a point: At this time of year, with the B's clinging to their playoff lives, the club needs Rask to be on top of his game and y'know, in the game. That doesn't happen if the Bruins are dragging him onto the ice Weekend At Bernie's style as they have in back-to-back playoff missed, though, and it's on Cassidy, who has already said Rask will not play every game between now and the season finale, to find the middle where it's playing time but also some rest in between those nights. 

“At crunch time things change a little bit, and that’s what we’re trying to balance,” Cassidy said. 

It would be nice if the fans followed and properly balanced their assignments of both blame and credit for the goalie, too. 

For once. 

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