With the reported signing of Tuukka Rask to a one-year, $3.5 million deal on Thursday, the Bruins protect themselves from any immediate calamity in goal.
With Tim Thomas already announcing his plan to take the upcoming season off, the Bruins couldn't afford the risk of letting Rask reach the open market, even as a restricted free agent.
Offer sheets are rare in the NHL, but if ever a situation could have tempted a rival general manager, the Bruins' unique issues in net this summer may have been it. The Bruins don't have to worry about another team poaching Rask now or driving up his netminder's price tag with an offer they would have little choice but to match considering their lack of options in goal.
Boston gets some peace of mind, at least for this season, for the price of that $3.5 million deal. In return, Rask gets a healthy raise nearly triple the $1.25 million cap hit he carried last year.
He had the leverage to demand such a pay hike thanks to Thomas' abrupt departure. He could have pressed for a longer deal and even more long-term security, but Rask could have even more leverage next year.
If he lives up to expectations, Rask could cash in with a far more lucrative long-term deal next summer. And his track record over the past three seasons doesn't give much reason to doubt his ability to thrive as a starter. He supplanted Thomas once already, earning the starting role in 2009-10 and leading the NHL with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.
This past season, he was outperforming Thomas again until a groin and abdominal injury sidelined him in early March. Rask, 25, finished the season with a 2.05 GAA and a .929 save percentage in 23 games, while Thomas had a 2.36 GAA and a .920 save percentage in 59 games.
The question facing Rask is whether he can hold up physically and maintain that level of performance over the course of a full season. Even in 2009-10 he played just 45 games with Thomas also appearing in 43. Rask has had knee issues in the past in addition to last year's injury, and after a stellar opening round win over Buffalo, he faded against Philadelphia in his lone playoff action in 2010. To be fair, he had little help as the entire Bruins club struggled mightily while blowing that 3-0 lead against the Flyers, but Rask did appear to wear down as that series progressed.
Rask will need to stay strong all season this year, and carry that level of performance into what the Bruins hope will be a deep playoff run. He'll have some help from Anton Khudobin, who has looked sharp in his limited NHL outings but has played just seven games at this level.
But this is Tuukka's team now. The Bruins are gambling on his ability to seize the opportunity, but by agreeing to just a one-year deal they haven't quite gone all in with their chips.
That could prove to be an even bigger gamble, as they may well be in the same spot next year. Rask will be a restricted free agent again, but will have a far more impressive resume if he succeeds as a starter this season. He'll also have company with Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Jordan Caron all scheduled to be RFAs as well, with Nathan Horton, Andrew Ference and Khudobin slated to be unrestricted free agents.
That could make for a challenging summer for Peter Chiarelli, but the Bruins general manager has at least saved himself a headache for now. Rask is in the fold, or at least will be on July 1 when he and Chris Kelly can officially sign their extensions without putting the Bruins over the cap.
Boston still faces cap issues, though. Next year's upper limit has been set at $70.2 million, though that could change once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. Even if the new CBA doesn't lower that ceiling, the Bruins won't have much breathing room. Capgeek.com has them already at $69.9 million, though that includes both Thomas' $5 million cap hit and Marc Savard's $4 million hit.
The Bruins may be able to trade Thomas' contract to a team looking to reach the cap floor and they can get relief from Savard's cap hit by placing him on long-term injured reserve, but even those moves don't leave a lot of room for any free agent additions.
The Bruins don't have to be major players in free agency now. With Rask is in place, the Bruins have the pieces to remain among the league's upper echelon and Rask will have the chance to prove that he, like Thomas before him, can carry the club to the very pinnacle.
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