A year ago, Tuukka Rask was a bit of an unknown. He had proven himself in Providence and was expected to finally make the leap to full-time duty in the NHL after two seasons in the AHL, but he was supposed to be strictly a backup.
After all, Tim Thomas was coming off a Vezina-winning campaign and had just signed a new four-year, $20 million contract. So a few games whenever Thomas needed a break as the kid learned the ropes in the NHL was about the best the Bruins could hope for out of Rask, right?
Not quite. Rask wasted little time establishing himself as a bona fide NHL starter in his own right, eventually supplanting Thomas as Boston’s No. 1 netminder and leading the league in both goals-against average (1.97) and in save percentage (.931) while going 22-12-5 with five shutouts.
“I just expected to make the team and have a good year,” said Rask after the season. “Nothing too much. I just wanted to be the guy who the team could rely on when I play and that’s about it.”
Now Rask, 23, has to prove that all over again. There’s nothing on his resume to raise any red flags about his ability to continue his emergence as one of the league’s elite goalies. He was a premier prospect in his native Finland when he was picked in the first round in 2005 by Toronto, and he has remained a top talent at every level he’s played at.
So why worry? It has little to do with Rask himself, and everything to do with the nature of the position he plays. The NHL record books are littered with examples of netminders who exploded on the scene with stellar rookie seasons, but couldn’t sustain that level of performance.
In Boston alone there have been several recent examples. Blaine Lacher was a revelation in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, going 19-11-2 with a 2.41 GAA. He flamed out quickly though, playing just 12 more games in the NHL after that year and was out of hockey by 1997.
Jim Carey‘s dominance lasted two seasons, as he went 18-6-3 in that same 1994-95 season as a rookie with Washington, then won the Vezina the following year. But by the time the Bruins acquired him in 1997, he was already fading fast. He went 5-13-0 with a 3.82 GAA in Boston and was out of hockey by 1999.
Even the guy Rask was traded for, Andrew Raycroft, has never been able to recapture the early form that helped him win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in 2003-04. He had a 2.05 GAA that season, but didn’t have another year under 2.80 until this past season, when he finished at 2.42 in limited action as Roberto Luongo‘s backup in Vancouver.
Just last year, 2008-09 Calder winner Steve Mason saw his own GAA skyrocket in Columbus, going from 2.29 to 3.05 as he struggled to regain his rookie form.
None of those examples proves that Rask will suffer a similar fate. For every star rookie that faded overnight, there’s a Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur who used a spectacular rookie campaign as a springboard to a Hall of Fame career.
Rask could just as easily follow their path to greatness. He certainly has a few things working in his favor.
First is the presence of Thomas. Despite trade rumors all summer, Thomas remains in Boston, and that might prove very fortunate for the Bruins, as he’ll be on hand to continue to push Rask. Thomas didn’t have the season he had expected as he battled a hip problem that required offseason surgery and was overtaken by Rask, but he still put up solid numbers as he finished tied for 14th in the NHL with a .915 save percentage and 16th with a 2.56 GAA.
“I’m comfortable with our goaltending duo,” said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli earlier this summer. “There will be an intense competition I know, and that’s the way we had planned it. I’m comfortable with it and I’m not saying it’s going to end up that way, but I’m certainly comfortable with it if it is.”
Rask thrives on such competition, and battling to stay ahead of Thomas on the depth chart should help him escape any potential sophomore slump.
Rask also has the advantage of a calm demeanor that seems almost impervious to pressure.
“He’s got a good demeanor,” said veteran defenseman Andrew Ference. “He’s done it in a very calm way. He plays a very controlled style and I think it has a calming influence on our team. Some of those shifts when you get stuck in your end, it’s nice to know that he’s back there just to settle things down.”
While Rask once famously exploded after a shootout loss in Providence, smashing his stick against the glass and tossing a milk crate onto the ice, he usually remains completely unfazed by whatever is thrown at him.
“He’s improved throughout the year,” said Chiarelli late last season. “What I take away is his ability to rebound after a poor game, and that speaks to his mental preparation. There’s been three or four instances where he came back into the net after a disappointing effort and he’s played very well, so that really sticks out for me.”
Rask has the ability and the attitude to remain one of the top goalies in the NHL for many years. He just has to go out and prove it — again.
NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.
Friday, Aug. 6: Is there room on the roster for any of the youngsters to earn a spot and which young players might be ready to make the leap?
Sunday, Aug. 8: Will Zdeno Chara return to his Norris Trophy form?