The Boston Bruins are in danger of repeating their fatal goaltending mistake from last season.
When pundits (myself included) reflected on the sacking of Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli earlier this summer, there was unanimity on the leading causes. Despite a fairly solid run of team success, Chiarelli was undone by a miserable drafting record, his questionable cap management, a series of disastrous trades and his inexplicable allegiance to several role players.
But there was another fatal error that played a role in last season’s playoff DNQ that we all overlooked. And it’s a mistake that Chiarelli’s successor, Don Sweeney, is on the verge of repeating.
Boston entered last season with defending Vezina Trophy winner Tuukka Rask as its starting goaltender and rookie Niklas Svedberg as its backup. Svedberg had been given the backup job not just because he’d had some success in the minors, but also because he was cheap enough to fit under the cap.
Unfortunately, Svedberg never became little more than a glorified spectator when coach Claude Julien lost faith in him. The rookie was given only four starts after the calendar turned to 2015, leading to Rask playing a career-high 70 games. The workload weighed on the veteran, particularly down the stretch when every game was critical to the team’s wobbly postseason chances.
“It’s mentally draining when you’re battling for that playoff spot and you play a lot of games in a row,” Rask told the Boston Herald. “You always feel kind of exhausted afterward.”
That exhaustion was evident at various points during the season, especially on the second night of back-to-back games, when Rask was a disappointing 1-5-2.
It should have been a priority then to find an affordable but reliable backup who could lighten Rask’s load. But with camp just a few weeks away, the B’s don’t know yet who’ll spell him in 2015–16.
It could be Jeremy Smith, a 26-year-old journeyman who has spent the past six seasons riding the buses in the minors, but has yet to appear in a single NHL game. Smith, a second-round selection of the Predators in 2007, went 22-11-5 with a 2.05 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage for AHL Providence in ’14–15. With no NHL experience he’s a wild card.
Maybe the answer is Zane McIntyre. The 22-year-old won the Mike Richter Award as the top goalie in college hockey last season and was one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award after going 29-10-3 with a 2.05 GAA and a .929 save percentage at North Dakota. The 2010 sixth-rounder is a highly regarded prospect, but he hasn’t played a minute of pro hockey.
Or perhaps it’ll be Malcolm Subban (younger brother of Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban). Boston’s 2012 first-rounder has the tools and the fighting spirit to become a solid pro, but he’s still regarded as a project. Subban was pulled from his first NHL start last season after allowing three goals on six shots, making it clear that he still has some work to do in the minors.
The truth is, none of those three look to be the equal of Svedberg at the moment. But with few options available via free agency (Ray Emery, Jonas Gustavsson) or the trade market, the Bruins’ may be forced to hand the job off to one of the kids and hope for the best.
"I’m sure things are going to sort out,” Rask told the Herald. “There are good young guys wanting to battle for a spot on the roster. Whoever it’s going to be, I’m sure they’re going to be very capable. We’ll see how it plays out, but I’m sure there’s no reason to worry.”
Maybe he’s right ... but Sweeney would be wise to have a real backup plan in place.
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