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Tuukka Rask's chance to prove he can be the Bruins' No. 1 goaltender will have to wait, and that isn't a very good thing.
To list the reasons the ongoing NHL lockout is problematic would be a waste of time. We're feeling it already, as NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly says the players must budge from their absurd demands of receiving fair pay and everyone's favorite players sign contracts with teams many have never heard of.
For the Bruins, the lockout also throws a wrench into the most pressing roster question they had entering the 2012-13 season: Who exactly is Tuukka Rask? The Finnish netminder chose a one-year deal this season, telling Peter Chiarelli and the organization that he wanted the shorter pact to prove he is the No. 1 goaltender they expect him to be. The decision makes sense for Rask since he could easily parlay a successful season into a long-term contract with the organization. Feelings on lengthy deals for goaltenders aside (they're generally terrible) it was an admirable decision for the 25-year old.
Tim Thomas' choice to do whatever it is he plans to do in Colorado this season hastened the inevitable. Rask was always going to be the Goaltender of the Future for the Bruins, but Thomas made that future come about a year faster than most expected - or so it seemed. Now, the lockout has tabled Rask's chance to earn the label thrust upon him for, well, as long as this idiotic pissing contest between the owners and the NHLPA lasts.
Whether or not Rask can be a No. 1 goaltender isn't the issue for the Bruins, so much as it is his ability to do it consistently. The second half of the 2009-10 season and bits of the last two said everything they had to about Rask's ability. The playoffs of that season, along with the hiccups he experienced in the last two years, however, said his position as a future all-star weren't quite as certain.
In 45 starts during the 09-10 season, Rask performed brilliantly, ending the regular season with 1.97 goals-against average and a Thomas-like .931 save percentage. Since, he's appeared beatable and incapable of doing the things Thomas always could. A season ago, Rask appeared in only 23 games for the Bruins, so his strong .925 save percentage and 2.05 goals against are difficult to draw conclusions from. The season prior, he played in 29 games - still not a fair amount to really judge - posting a 2.67 goals against and .918 save percentage. While these numbers are hardly "bad," they don't suggest the premier young goaltender in the world.
Rask and the Bruins insist he can win this team games and championships, and 2012-13 seemed like the year we'd all learn if that was true or not. Now, instead of a full season as Boston's goaltender, he gets an open-ended run as a netminder for HC Plzen of the Czech Extraliga, a team that features a 40-year-old Martin Straka and other guys with the Czechest names imaginable. In terms of his commitment to stay sharp and develop his game, Rask will likely do all he can. The competition level as well as his mindset whenever the NHL season actually starts, however, are worrisome.
The inevitability of a shortened season will produce your share of anomalies and strange performances of players either benefiting from a smaller sample size or struggling to ever really find their feet. Either way, this makes the water even murkier for the Bruins with respect to Rask. Assuming there is a season, Rask's performance will be tainted either way. Entering the summer, many assumed a multi-year contract was in Rask's future. His choice to keep it to a year may prove especially boneheaded given the deals the club has thrown other impending RFAs it views as cogs in its future. Ultimately, the move could prove even worse should the turbulence of a the lockout and his uncertain stay in Plzen impact his game when the Bruins begin their next season.
The day Tim Thomas told us he wanted to move to Colorado instead of play out the final year of his contract with the Bruins was the day Rask became the No. 1 goaltender. That status, while solidified by his ability and better-than average performance, led to concern. Rask's insistence that he could do the job and desire to prove it were encouraging. Still, they hardly quelled the hesitation. Now, the NHL has locked out its players. Tuukka Rask is playing for a team whose general manager (Straka) is also its captain and has changed its name 13 times in the 83 years. Meanwhile, the Bruins biggest question will remain unanswered for the foreseeable future.