Bruins Mailbag: Tuukka Rask Earning Equal Playing Time With Tim Thomas

Bruins Mailbag: Tuukka Rask Earning Equal Playing Time With Tim ThomasThe Bruins haven’t been quite as dominant in the New Year, with their current four-game road trip down South proving particularly troublesome.

The Bruins are learning the hard way that they can’t get away with lackadaisical efforts, even against cellar-dwellers like Carolina and Tampa Bay. But the good news is Boston is still atop the Northeast Division and within striking distance of the top spot in the conference, with a huge showdown with the first-place Rangers on tap for Saturday.

That doesn’t mean the recent stumbles haven’t produced some questions, and I did my best to get to as many of them as possible in the latest edition of the Bruins Mailbag. As always, I’d like to thank all the readers who sent in questions and apologize in advance if I wasn’t able to get to yours. Please keep submitting your questions and I’ll answer as many of them as I can as we head into the second half of the season.

Hi Doug, Shawn Thornton is always in the mix of the Bruins’ physical battles and in my opinion, one of the most impactful players on the team with all the momentum he builds up game after game, whether with a dominant fight or a huge hit. Is he the Bruins’ top priority to sign this offseason?—Jake, Simsbury

There’s no denying that Thornton has made an impact in his time in Boston. He is extremely valuable because he’s one of the few legitimate tough guys in the league that can also play a regular shift and contribute offensively (as he showed with his nifty penalty shot last week). He’s also very responsible defensively and rarely puts the Bruins shorthanded (just five times in 43 games this season, one of which was for a phantom illegal check to the head against Winnipeg which the referee later apologized for calling as replays showed Thornton did not make contact to Chris Thorburn’s head), while also being a key leader in the locker room and a big part of the club’s strong chemistry on and off the ice.

He’s made it known that he wants to stay in Boston beyond this season and would like to finish his career here. The Bruins would be well served in keeping him around, but I don’t think I could classify him as their top priority this offseason. That designation would fall to getting Tuukka Rask re-signed. He’s due to be a restricted free agent this summer and remains the Bruins’ future in goal (and a big part of their present with how well he’s played this season). Among the unrestricted free agents, retaining Chris Kelly would probably take precedence as well, and the Bruins also have to deal with Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille, Benoit Pouliot, Johnny Boychuk and Joe Corvo being up for new deals. Thornton is an important piece, but the Bruins will have a lot of decisions to make this summer, and will have to make them knowing Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin, Nathan Horton and Tim Thomas, among others, will be up for contracts the following summer.

Heard about the Bruins trying to acquire Tim Gleason. Is there some level of dissatisfaction with [Johnny] Boychuk, [Adam] McQuaid, [Joe] Corvo, [Steven] Kampfer and [Matt] Bartkowski?
—JLE, Quincy, Mass.

Gleason’s name has come up in many trade rumors because of Carolina’s struggles this year and his status as an UFA after the season. I’ve always liked his game, but I’m not sure his skillset is what the Bruins need most to complement their existing blue-line corps. They would probably be better served looking for more of a puck-mover rather than another physical, stay-at-home type like Gleason.

Of course, a defenseman with more offensive upside is harder to find and would cost more in a deal, and there are no guarantees how they will fit into the mix, as the Bruins found out last year with Tomas Kaberle. I wouldn’t rule out the Bruins making a play for Gleason, especially if they were to suffer an injury on defense before the trade deadline, but I don’t necessarily think he’s a prime target and there are likely going to be other teams more interested and more willing to give up a greater package for him (Philadelphia with Chris Pronger out for the season perhaps being one). I think a smaller move for an experienced sixth or seventh defenseman is the more likely scenario.

I also don’t think the Bruins are especially dissatisfied with their current defense corps. Corvo has struggled of late and that was part of why I think more of an offensive defenseman would make more sense, though ironically part of the appeal of Gleason is because he and Corvo played together in Carolina and formed a pretty effective duo, particularly against the Bruins in the 2009 playoffs. Boychuk and McQuaid have been solid this season. Kampfer hasn’t been given much of an opportunity this year but I don’t think they’ve soured on him long-term. I do think they would prefer to add a veteran with more experience as insurance for the playoffs rather than counting on Kampfer if someone went down.

Bartkowski is more of a project. He was pretty shaky in his brief stint in Boston at the start of the season and is in danger of being passed over by other prospects, particularly Dougie Hamilton, who could contend for a spot as soon as next season.

Now that the NHL has a salary cap, are their contracts guaranteed? I have seen some recent headlines that the last two Red Sox contracts were non-guaranteed?—Jim L., Spencer, Mass.

I can’t speak on the exact details of the Red Sox deals, but all NHL contracts are guaranteed, and have been since well before the owners’ lockout that brought about the salary cap. That could be an issue in the next round of CBA negotiations, but I can’t see the NHLPA budging on that one. All of the major sports except the NFL have guaranteed contracts. Entry-level deals and contracts for many fridge players in the NHL are two-way deals, paying a lower salary if the player is assigned to the minors, but the contracts are still guaranteed.

Almost being halfway through the season, if the Bruins meet the Hurricanes in the playoffs, could there be a potential upset? We are 0-3 against them this year.
—Peter Fallon via Facebook

The Hurricanes have proven a tough matchup and there’s obviously some recent history with the second-round loss to them in 2009, but I wouldn’t read too much into regular-season results when it comes to predicting postseason outcomes. That year the Bruins were 4-0-0 against Carolina and dominated the Hurricanes, and it didn’t have much of an effect in the spring. The Bruins went 0-7-1 against Montreal in 2007-08 and still pushed the Habs to seven games in the first round. Last year Boston had a losing record against the Canadiens again and beat them in the playoffs. And Montreal could also throw out the regular-season results as they lost the last two games in Boston, including a 7-0 whitewash on March 24, and still came in and won the first two games at the Garden to start that series.

And if that isn’t enough to set your mind at ease, you may find it more reassuring to check out the current standings, where Carolina is currently last in the East, 10 points out of the final playoff spot. The Hurricanes won’t be upsetting anybody in the playoffs if they’re watching from home.

Just wondering if the Bruins are planning anymore preseason games in Ireland? I was at the last game and was brilliant, not like going to a game at TD Garden but great to see our heroes outside of being able to see them on TV or on the Net.
—James Staunton, Galway, Ireland

First of all, it’s good to hear from someone over in the old country. The Flynns, or at least this branch of the family tree, originally hailed from not too far away from you in Roscommon, though a few generations removed now. The only way the Bruins would likely return to Northern Ireland or play in the Republic of Ireland would be if they were to open the season in Europe again as part of the NHL Premiere games as they did in Prague last year. There are no firm plans for the team to do that as of now, though I know everyone involved with the team enjoyed the trip to both Belfast and Prague and I think the Bruins would be open to going abroad again at some point in the future. Returning to Belfast or somewhere else in Ireland would be a possibility considering the strong connection between Boston and Ireland with so much of the Irish diaspora residing here, but there would also no doubt be plenty of interest in playing some exhibitions elsewhere in Europe for a new experience.

With Tuukka Rask’s continued success do you think we’ll be seeing more of a split season from him, and hopefully in some more high-profile tilts?
—David Francis via Facebook

I think we’ve already seen that. Since the start of December, Rask has appeared in nine games (eight starts) and Thomas has played in 12. Rask has actually gotten more starts at the Garden (five to Thomas’ four) in that span, and has sat out more than two games in a row just once in that stretch, and that was just a three-game run for Thomas in mid-December. Rask has also gotten back-to-back starts himself twice in that stretch, and has posted an 8-1-0 mark with a 1.07 GAA and .965 save percentage, so he’s certainly proven he’s worthy of an expanded role. Thomas has been pretty good himself (6-4-0, 2.08 GAA, .939 save percentage going into Tuesday’s game in Tampa), but he was a little shaky against the Lightning and has had a few other hiccups of late. That could earn Rask an even greater share of the goalie duties and perhaps some more of the marquee matchups. Rask has played some big games against Toronto, Southeast Division-leading Florida twice and Los Angeles, but Thomas did get the nod against Vancouver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Montreal twice, though I suppose this year those Montreal games aren’t quite as big with how bad the Habs have been.

This Saturday will be very interesting as the Bruins face the Rangers for the first time this season with first place in the East potentially at stake. Rask is just 2-3-0 against New York, but with a 1.62 GAA and a .946 save percentage, while Thomas is 4-7-3 with a 2.69 GAA and .911 save percentage against the Rangers. Could that be Rask’s big chance to take on an elite team? Or will Julien stick with the veteran Thomas in a matchup of All-Star netminders against Henrik Lundqvist?

Do you think Dennis Seidenberg and Zdeno Chara will see more regular ice time together as a pairing if sloppy play continues?
—bruinsgirl33 (Sara T.) via Twitter

Claude Julien has already been tweaking the defensive pairings the last couple games. The primary change has been to split up Seidenberg and Joe Corvo, moving Corvo down with Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid up with Seidenberg while keeping Chara and Johnny Boychuk together. But McQuaid has also seen time alongside Chara and the Chara-Seidenberg pairing that was so successful in the playoffs has made a few appearances of late as well.

I think you will continue to see the occasional shift with them together, especially when the Bruins face a team with one dominant top line they are focused on trying to shut down. But I don’t think you’ll see them together full-time in the regular season as Julien would rather keep them separate to balance out the workload a little more and keep a little more in the tank for both of them for the playoffs, when you’ll likely see them back together or a more regular basis.

Have questions for Douglas Flynn’s mailbag? Leave them in the comments section below, send them to him via Twitter @douglasflynn or send them here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week. Be sure to check back to see if your question was answered.

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