In the days following the Boston Bruins’ elimination from the 2021 Playoffs by the New York Islanders, we’ve learned a lot about the Bruins’ private struggles throughout the season. Brad Marchand opened up about the nagging pains from his sports hernia surgery. Chris Wagner spoke about the anxieties of the compressed schedule. The most surprising news, however, was the revelation that goalie Tuukka Rask was playing through a torn labrum in his hip throughout the playoffs, which will require surgery. This may help explain why his performance slowly declined during the Islanders’ series, despite his reputation for disappearing in elimination games.
This news changes things. First, it paints a clearer picture of the Bruins’ disappointing end to the season. Rask was noticeably less mobile in Game 5 and the deciding Game 6, as the injury took its toll. He isn’t blameless in the Bruins’ defeat, but he didn’t choke either.
More importantly, this injury speaks to Rask’s future in Boston. He could have given the reins to rookie Jeremy Swayman, but he decided to play through a serious injury until the very end. The Bruins were going to win or lose with Rask, no matter what, in what seems like the Finnish netminder’s last hurrah with the club.
Rask, a pending unrestricted free agent, will only be re-signed by the Bruins if he takes a short-term, team-friendly deal worth much less than his current $7 million salary. He said he wants to stay in Boston in his exit interview, but we’ve been down this road before. Former captain Zdeno Chara said the same thing. If the failed negotiations with Chara are any indication, Rask’s days wearing black and gold have come to an end.
Rask Must Take Pay Cut
Rask’s performance didn’t help, but the real factor that doomed the Bruins in the playoffs was their lack of depth (as usual). When Kevan Miller and Brandon Carlo were injured, Jarred Tinordi and Connor Clifton couldn’t fill their skates, and the bottom-six failed to provide sufficient scoring. Boston’s front office will need to approach offseason contract negotiations with these things in mind.
Rask will have to take a significant pay cut to stay with the team so that management can address their depth issues. He should be aware of this, as his job would have been a lot easier if the team had capable substitutes on the blue line to support him. He can’t earn the same salary if he wants Carlo, Miller, and Mike Reilly back.
The team also has several free agents who are a higher priority than Rask, with David Krejci and Taylor Hall at the top of the list. Hall will demand upwards of $5 million a season, but Boston should make it work. Krejci’s situation is more difficult. He will be an attractive target on the market, so the Bruins will have a hard time re-signing him. Perhaps the two sides can agree on a short-term deal while the rest of the team’s core remains intact.
The Bruins will also be going after new additions to bolster the defense and bottom-six. Depth on the right-wing and on the blue line could elevate the team to Cup contention. Those acquisitions can’t happen if Rask re-signs at the same salary, which needs to be sliced in half, at least.
What good will it do to bring back a 34-year-old goaltender if management can’t afford to surround him with adequate players? The fact is, Rask is not all that important to Boston’s future anymore. They have two capable prospects waiting to replace him – Swayman and Dan Vladar – who would free up cap space for general manager Don Sweeney to keep the team’s core together and add the pieces they need.
Swayman Complicates Things
The Bruins have developed their goalies better than most teams. Rask played well behind Tim Thomas early in his career, and Swayman has shown even more promise in his first professional experience. He earned the backup role in the playoffs over Jaroslav Halak, which shows how much faith the Bruins have in him.
Swayman is the heir apparent if Rask moves on, but it would be a bold move to thrust the 22-year-old into a starting role next season. A young goalie’s confidence can disappear quickly, despite his talent. Just ask the Philadelphia Flyers’ Carter Hart.
Even so, plenty of young goalies made their mark in 2020-21: Ilya Samsonov with the Washington Capitals, Igor Shesterkin with the New York Rangers, and Mackenzie Blackwood with the New Jersey Devils, to name a few. Hart had a rough season, but he’s still the future in Philadelphia. This crop of goalies will be around for a long time, Swayman included.
Sweeney doesn’t like to take chances. He likely won’t give Swayman the job right away, and Halak is as good as gone. That leaves two options: re-sign Rask on a team-friendly deal or go after a cheap veteran on the market. Keeping Rask would make more sense if a promising rookie wasn’t lurking in the shadows, but Swayman complicates the situation. THW has him ranked as the third-best goalie prospect in the NHL. Will Sweeney give Rask another year or two, or will he hand the reins to Swayman? I think the Bruins should look to the future rather than cling to the past.
Time To Move On
Despite Rask’s proclamation that he wants to stay in Boston, the writing should be on the wall. His decision to play through a serious injury felt like an act of desperation – a last attempt to win the Stanley Cup in Boston. If his return was certain, he likely wouldn’t have been so reckless with his body.
At the end of the day, Boston has higher priorities this offseason than keeping Rask. He has been a high-level starter for almost a decade and among the league’s best goalies, but those days are over. Keeping Krejci, Hall, Carlo, and signing some depth players are more important than holding on to an aging goalie in the hopes that he can give you a couple more seasons. Swayman should be nudging him out of the door.
If the Bruins want to get the most out of their core in the next few years, they need to part ways with Rask, whose body is beginning to fall apart. It was a good run, but it’s time to move on.