Jaroslav Halak could be playing his last games for the Bruins

Matt Kalman
March 06, 2020 - 4:58 pm

When it comes to Bruins general manager Don Sweeney’s unrestricted free agents signings, few can beat his decision to ink goalie Jaroslav Halak.

The 34-year-old Halak has won his past seven decisions for the NHL-leading Bruins, and he has a .919 save percentage, barely off the pace of last season when he posted a .922 in 40 games. Since he joined Boston on July 1, 2018, he’s seventh among all NHL goaltenders that have at least 30 wins with a .921 save percentage (as of this writing on Friday, Tuukka Rask is eighth at .920).

As recently as the 2017-18 season, Halak played in 54 games, making 49 starts for the New York Islanders. The lessened workload, though, has suited him as much as it has Rask, and he seems pleased with how the situation has played out in Boston.

“I’ve gotten to play a good amount of games,” Halak told WEEI.com. “A lot of teams they have one goalie who plays the majority of the games and the other goalie plays here and there. So here I’m playing a good amount of games. I played a lot last year and this year I’m playing you know almost the same amount of games. It’s fun.”

But Halak, who’ll turn 35 in May, might be playing some of his last games for Boston. Last season he didn't play a second in the run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. So after coming to Boston on a two-year contract and outplaying his average annual value of $2.75 million and helping put Rask in a position to thrive in the postseason, Halak might find himself in high demand after this season.

It’s somewhat unprecedented for a goalie of Halak’s age to become a free agent while still performing at the level he has in a Bruins sweater. In 2014, Ryan Miller was turning 34 when he signed in Vancouver. He got a three-year deal at a $6 million AAV after having had seasons with a .918 and .915 save percentage. He had a .914 save percentage in his three seasons for the Canucks and then signed for two years at just $2 million AAV with Anaheim in the month he turned 37.

The market has corrected for older goalies and for teams that are committing more to a two-goalie system. Brian Elliott at 34 re-signed with Philadelphia for one year at $2 million and former Bruins netminder Anton Khudobin got $2.5 million from Dallas at 32 when Boston turned to Halak. Heck, when Robin Lehner hit the open market last summer at 27, coming off being a Vezina finalist with the Islanders, he was only able to get a one-year, $5 million contract from Chicago.

There will be plenty of teams looking for at least a high-caliber backup goalie if not a 1A to go with their No. 1. Montreal, Washington (if Braden Holtby shockingly doesn’t re-sign), Dallas, Chicago (after trading Lehner), San Jose, New Jersey, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and the Islanders might all be shopping for goalie help. But will any of them be willing to pay that much more than Boston in order to lure Halak away?

Lehner and Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom, 29 and 30 respectively this July 1, will lead the goalie free agent class that will also include Elliott, Cam Talbot, Mike Smith, Thomas Greiss, Laurent Brossoit and, yes, Khudobin once again. If you can believe it, Khudobin and Halak have played the same amount of games and the Stars goaltender actually has bested Halak and Rask with a .926 save percentage all while making $250K less than Halak. Those two will probably be No. 3 and 4 on most teams' shopping list.

Hovering over all this is the 2021 expansion draft that will fill Seattle’s roster. The Bruins will need a goaltender to expose, assuming they’ll have re-signed Tuukka Rask by then and won’t be offering him up to the Kracken (or whatever the hell they’ll be called). If Halak’s determined to play for a winner every season and not pack up and move across the continent after never playing anywhere farther west than the Central time zone, he’s going to want guarantees he’s going to be protected. At this stage of his career, he probably also wants more than a one- or two-year commitment. If the Bruins can keep a Maxime Lagace-type at Providence of the AHL, they might be able to satisfy Halak’s need for the former. As for the latter, anything longer than two more years could cause the Bruins to block the ascension of a prospect like Dan Vladar or Jeremy Swayman. Other teams might be able to provide Halak more long-term security.

So while Sweeney tries to figure out how much of his newly found salary cap space to use on UFA Torey Krug and his handful of restricted free agents, based on recent results, he must prioritize a No. 1A goalie to pair with Rask. Halak’s been the perfect fit, but he might exceed Boston’s threshold for a goaltender contract in both money and term. Sweeney might have to act fast, maybe even by trading for someone before July 1, to give that position behind Rask some certainty before the summer spending spree begins.

The only certainty right now is that Halak isn’t focused on anything beyond however long this Bruins’ season lasts.

“I’m not trying now to look to the future. We have what, 40 games left, plus playoffs?” he told WEEI.com a couple months ago. “It’s every player in the NHL’s goal to win the Stanley Cup. So we’ll see what happens.”

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