For the past decade, the Boston Bruins haven't had to worry too much about their goaltending situation. Tuukka Rask has been one of the best goaltenders over the past decade, winning at least 30 games in all five seasons of his career when starting at least 50 games and even taking home the 2014 Vezina Trophy - and he almost grabbed another one last year, too.
But he's 34. At some point, Father Time comes calling, and with every injury scare, you just have to wonder how much longer he has left in the Bruins' crease. Rask has missed the past few days with an "undisclosed" injury, and while nobody has a sense as to how that'll affect him moving forward, it's not too early to think about the future.
That's where Daniel Vladar and Jeremy Swayman enter the conversation. Vladar made his NHL debut with the Bruins last season after callups in the past, allowing just one goal and making 34 saves in a 3-1 win over Pittsburgh. It was a long time coming for Vladar, who was selected 75th overall by the Bruins back in 2015 before spending the next few years sharing the net with AHL veterans Max Lagace and Zane McIntyre over the past few years in Providence. The plan was for him to spend the year in Providence again, but Rask's injury allowed for Vladar to make the long-awaited debut on Tuesday.
In Swayman's case, very few goaltending prospects have performed at the level that he has over the past 18 months. Swayman posted an incredible 18-5-11 record for the University of Maine a year ago to win the Mike Richter Award as the NCAA's top goalie and make him a finalist for the prestigious Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA's top player, period. Add in a 7-0-0 run with a shutout and a .942 save percentage to open up his pro career in Providence and you've got a star in the making on your hands.
Two talented up-and-coming goaltenders under the age of 24 making a statement early in their career? Yeah, Boston is in beautiful shape for the future if this all works out. And, no, this isn't a "well, good starts for both, that makes them both stars!" type of thing, either. Both have been highly regarded goalies for quite some time for a reason.
That post-Rask would is creeping up on us all, and as the Bruins look for ways to stay competitive as the core group begins to decline, having a pair of hot goaltenders in the system could really help alleviate the pain. Both goaltenders are in the top 10 Bruins'prospects in our annual Yearbook issue, with Swayman the highest-ranking at sixth place. Many teams don't even have one in their own top 10s.
Vladar has waited his turn and deserved to get the start first. Recency bias points in Swayman's direction, and he certainly looks like the top option moving forward, but Vladar earned the start and deserved the praise he received after stopping Sidney Crosby and Co. Swayman's actual pro career has lasted a few weeks, so no need to rush him just yet. Jaroslav Halak is still the top gun when Rask is out of action, but giving Vladar a boost of confidence can go a long way if the Bruins are without one of their two goalies long-term later in the season.
Both Rask and Halak - 34 and 35 respectively - are free agents at the end of the season and it's unlikely they'll keep both. I don't envision Rask leaving if the Bruins still believe they're in a contender window, but it almost certainly should offer the Bruins a chance to promote Vladar to full-time duty
We can't ignore Kyle Keyser, who has been a nice presence in the ECHL with Jacksonville. Keyser had a bit of a setback due to a concussion last year, his second in two seasons. He was limited to just seven games between the AHL and ECHL and struggled to look comfortable, so his play with the Icemen has been a nice step for his overall progress. At this point, though, the future looks a bit more promising for Vladar and Swayman, but you can't have enough auspicious options in the pipeline.
It's still too early to figure out how this is going to work out for the Bruins in the long run, and the real focus has to be on surviving the East Division as best as possible right now. But the fact that the Bruins elected to go with a rookie against the team they're directly chasing in the standings is a great sign of how they view Vladar, and Swayman has been nothing other than near-perfect in his pro-action this season.
Don't worry, Bruins fans. This is all going to work out. Now the team just needs to figure out the other five positions while they're at it.