Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

How re-signing Anton Khudobin can revitalize Tuukka Rask

Cameron Kerry
June 06, 2018 - 4:18 pm

A valuable goaltender, much like a pitcher or quarterback, can lead a team to victories and titles. However, depending on a goaltender too much can cause fatigue, which will lead to diminishing results over time.

In order to optimize the better goaltender, the backup needs to be able to spell him and allow him to stay fresh. For Tuukka Rask to return to his elite form from prior years, the Bruins need to re-sign Anton Khudobin.

Rask was a world-class goaltender. In 2013-14, he started the All-Star game and won the Vezina trophy, awarded to the league’s best goaltender. From 2009-15, Rask played relatively limited minutes and shined, good for elite numbers in terms of save percentage and goals against average (GAA). During that six-year stretch, Rask’s goals saved above average (GSSA), the hockey goaltending equivalent of wins above replacement, was 113.16, amounting to an average of 18.86 per season. Rask allowed almost 19 goals less per year than an average goaltender facing the same number of shots, proving that he could backstop the Bruins to a stellar record.

As Rask’s minutes skyrocketed, his play deteriorated. The goaltenders behind Rask on the depth chart could not provide results worthy of winning hockey games.

Jonas Gustavvson, Rask’s 2015-16 backup, proved futile. The Swedish netminder lasted one season in Boston, garnering a -4.04 GSSA and a putrid 2.72 GAA. In 2016-17, the Bruins failed to find a worthy backup to Rask, causing the netminder to play through injuries. He battled groin and back injuries, getting the nod for 62 starts in order to keep the team afloat. Zane McIntrye, Malcolm Subban, and Anton Khudobin received work, but none were able to win games. McIntrye amassed a 0-4-1 record, coupled with a 3.97 GAA and .858 save percentage. Subban was pulled after allowing three goals on 16 shots in his lone appearance. Khudobin’s record of 7-6-1 appears solid, but the underlying numbers are unsightly. His quality start percentage was .367, well below the league average of .530. He also posted a -3.95 GSAA.

The Bruins coaching staff continued to call upon an unhealthy Rask between the pipes because they could not count on sustainable production from backup goaltenders.

From 2015-17, he started 125 games. His GSAA over the course of those seasons was a combined 3.18, a far cry removed from his previous average. Rask’s quality start percentage plunged from an all-worldly .664 to an average .520. After the Senators eliminated the Bruins in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, Rask noted, “I think it’s important that you try to manage the rest and keep everybody as fresh as possible.”

Rask was not able to perform at his peak due to inability to properly rest and recover, amassing ample minutes to keep the Bruins competing for a postseason birth.

This past season, Khudobin’s elevated play allowed Rask to rest more.

Khudobin recorded a 16-6-7 mark and improved his numbers across the board. His quality start percentage vaulted from .375 mark to a respectable .550. Khudobin’s reliability, combined with the Bruins domination of puck possession, amounted to wins.

The Bruins coaching staff trusted Khudobin as a dependable goaltender, so they had the luxury to reduce Rask’s minutes. Rask started 53 contests this past campaign, notching a 34-14-5 record. His GSAA jumped to 7.79, a result of being able to rotate goaltenders more freely.

“I felt great the whole season," Rask said at breakup day. "I think it was a great luxury we had this year, playing time with Doby [Anton Khudobin], he had a great year. You know, I felt good, so it was probably the best I’ve felt”.

Rask’s improved play directly correlates with his restriction on minutes, no longer having to fight through fatigue and pains to help avoid his club from sinking with other netminders between the pipes.

Rask is not the only goaltender who experiences this phenomena. Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot started a herculean 73 games during the 2016-17 regular season and another 13 in the postseason, carrying his team to the brink of the Western Conference finals. When tasked with starting another 67 this past season, Talbot regressed immensely. His GAA soared from 2.39 to 3.02 and his GSAA bottomed out from 12.21 to -9.30. Talbot’s numerical depreciation can be attributed to, in addition to his team’s porous defensive corps, the sheer number of minutes he has played.

Sean Tierney

 

The chart above, from Sean Tierney of Hockey Graphs and The Athletic, measures the effectiveness of starting and backup goaltenders with data prior to January 23, 2018. Eight of the ten clubs in the quality tandem quadrant qualified for the postseason. Having two viable goaltenders dramatically increases a team’s ability to win games because both goaltenders can be healthy for peak performance.

Sweeney noted how fresh Rask was entering the playoffs when asked if the team would duplicate last season's backup goaltenders workload. The organization aims for is a tick under 60 games for the starter, depending on the team’s performance in relation to the race for the postseason. Sweeney admitted that the ability of backup factors into the starters workload determination.

“Can he hang in there and get the job done? Clearly, Anton did this year and more," Sweeney said. "So, worked out well in our favor in that regard. So, that was the plan we set out to do, and we were able to stick to it because of those two things, and I give Anton a lot of credit for doing his part."

Adressing his impending free agency, Khudobin said, “I want to be here. I like here ... This is my favorite city ... Don [Sweeney] knows that I love it here. I love the city and everybody knows it ... It matters what they can offer, and how much I’m willing to take. But for me personally, I would love to stay here."

General Manager Don Sweeney said the team was exploring bringing Khudobin back and that the backup goaltender situation would be addressed after talks with Khudobin progressed.

The Bruins have 17 free agents that management will need to let go of or attempt to re-sign. For the 2016-17 season, the NHL salary cap was $75,000,000. The Bruins have $8,884,333 in available cap space, courtesy of Cap Friendly. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly announced that the cap would rise to somewhere between $78 and 82 million. The rise in the cap gives the Bruins increased flexilibility to create next season's roster. Deadline addition Rick Nash, third line center Riley Nash, and a host of back end players are due for new contracts. No player is more important to re-sign than Khudobin.

Let's put the pen to paper.

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