Admit it, there's a teensy, teeny part of you that, when hearing that Tuukka Rask is the future in Boston, thinks "we said that about Blaine Lacher and Andrew Raycroft, too." So, is there a chance that Rask will suffer the same fate as Boston's two other recent rookie goaltending sensations?
Let's begin with a comparison of their rookie year statistics:
I am ignoring wins, since they are a thoroughly overrated statistic for goaltenders. The goaltender has one job, and one job only: stop as many pucks from going past him as possible. Whether he wins or loses will be largely a function of the players in front of him, and how effectively they score goals, and keep the other team from generating scoring chances. The next time you hear an announcer talk about how a goaltender "just knows how to win games", you can assume he's a moron, and listen to another broadcast. Hockey announcers can't hold a candle to baseball announcers in this regard, though; listening to someone like Tim McCarver wax poetic about how a pitcher "just knows how to win" makes me want to jam a Phillips head screwdriver into my Philip's head brain. And yet, I digress.
If Raycroft's GVT looks more impressive than Rask's, remember that GVT is a cumulative stat, i.e. more games equals a higher GVT unless your name happens to be Vesa Toskala. Raycroft played 57 games, compared to 45 for Rask and 33 for Lacher, so on per game basis, Rask gets the edge, as you might expect, given his much lower GAA and higher save percentage. Right away, we see a big difference in Rask and Lacher. Lacher's rookie numbers weren't bad by any means; he was 19th in GVT among goaltenders that season, which wasn't bad at all for a part-timer. Still, he was nowhere near as good as Rask. Raycroft was excellent as a rookie, but Rask was a bit better. That's a point in Tuukka's favor right off the bat.
Lacher passed up what would have been his senior year at Lake Superior State to sign with the Bruins as a free agent. His junior year at Lake Superior State was, by any measure, impressive: a 1.98 GAA and a .918 save percentage. However, there's reason to be skeptical about those numbers (beyond, you know, the fact that we already know how the story ends). Lacher was a 23 year old junior, who had been starting for three solid years. He was, in many respects, a man playing amongst boys. It would be a bit surprising if his numbers weren't impressive, in fact. His other college stats certainly weren't anything to write home about (3.22 GAA as a freshman and 2.69 as a sophomore, and an .892 save percentage). He had no minor league experience that we could use as a guide to success. In this light, Lacher looks very much like a guy who fattened up on competition that was beneath him, then had a brief and fortunate run of success in the pros before teams figured him out.
Raycroft is different from Lacher, in terms of his experience before the Bruins. He played three years in the OHL, North America's premier junior league, and then three full seasons in Providence. He was 23 when he had his rookie season, having established a solid level of success in the AHL that could be built upon. His stats from 2001-2 and 2002-3 are nearly identical: only .001 worth of save percentage and 0.07 goals against separates them. It was reasonable to assume that Raycroft was not a fly-by-night goaltending prospect; he had earned his stripes playing against quality competition and proven himself admirably. And of course, his rookie season gave every indication of that, as he won the Calder Trophy and backstopped the Bruins to a divisional title. Even in their defeat, Raycroft performed brilliantly, posting a .924 save percentage and 2.15 GAA in the playoffs.
However, there is an important distinction between Raycroft and Rask, just as there was between Raycroft and Lacher. I noted Raycroft's success at Providence from 2001-03. Go check out his numbers prior to that. Is there anything there to make you believe that he's a guy who will become an elite goaltender? Not really. So what? Well, if you look at the histories of the best goaltenders in the NHL, you'll notice that an alarmingly high number were (gasp) really good in junior (and/or college) hockey! If that seems too absurdly obvious to mention, it's something that seemed to elude the GMs who picked guys like Brent Krahn and Pascal Leclaire with high first round picks, despite less-than-sterling junior hockey resumes. Or Al Montoya, who was coming off a completely uninspired junior season at Michigan.
Raycroft's junior numbers were nothing to write home about, but Rask has shown strong play, and occasionally dominance, at every level of play, and has generally done so at an age appropriate for the level playing, or even a slightly advanced age. His numbers in the Finnish leagues and in junior tournaments are sterling. This is a major difference between the two, and bodes very well for Rask.
The scouts didn't think much of Raycroft; he was a fifth round pick. Rask, on the other hand, has been pegged as an elite goaltender pretty much from birth, and was drafted accordingly: 1st round, 21st overall. Uh oh, I just said the cursed word for evaluating goaltenders: draft. "You can get good goaltending cheaply!" Yes, you can. Ryan Miller was the 138th pick in his draft, for example. Henrik Lundqvist 205th, and so on. Does draft status matter at all? After all, I sure don't remember the Evgeni Ryabchikov era in Boston all that fondly, despite the B's burning the 18th overall pick of the draft on him. Does it really matter that Rask was drafted in round 1, and Raycroft in round 5?
Birdwatchers Anonymous, the Thrashers' SBNation site, did some work on draft status and success, finding that, in the 2009 playoffs, 44% of the starting goaltenders were first round picks, with the remainder scattered hither and yon throughout the draft. Copper and Blue expanded on this a bit to look at goaltenders drafted from 1997 to 2005, and found a correlation between draft order and success, though he noted that a huge amount of the successful first round goaltenders were top five picks, and postulated that if you're not looking at a top five goaltender, it doesn't matter that much where they're picked. I'm less sure of this conclusion, but I recommend that you look at the numbers and see for yourself. When he winnows down the list of "successes" a bit further, and takes out some of the marginal cases for "success" however, its noteworthy that of the 17 goaltenders he picks (of whom Rask is one), 7 were first rounders, and 4 more were second or third round picks. (It should be noted that an updated version of the study would probably include Antero Nittymaki, 168th pick and Dan Ellis, 60th, as successes.)
While picking a goaltender in round 1 isn't a guarantee of success, the idea that drafting goaltenders at random has little to recommend it. To that end, the fact that Rask was picked in round 1 gives us at least some confidence that his success is likely to be lasting. How much confidence is another question, however.
Height is another asset that may have some correlation to success for NHL goaltenders. According to this study by Hockey's Future, medium sized goaltenders studied in the 2003-4 season (medium defined as 6'0 to 6'2) had a career GAA of 2.73, while large goaltenders (over 6'2) had a career GAA of 2.49. It is, however, noteworthy that goaltenders under 6'0 fared slightly better than their medium sized counterparts, with a GAA of 2.62. Hockey's Future added winning percentage into their study, however, something I wouldn't do for the reasons noted above. (I wish they'd added save percentage, but alas.) Big goaltenders have long been favored by scouts and front offices alike, and it's not hard to understand why. You can block more of the net, have a longer reach to poke-check opposing skaters, can do more to cut down the angle on opposing skaters because of your longer arms, etc. That's not to suggest that small and medium sized goaltenders are predisposed to failure; obviously they are not. And it's definitely not one I'm putting a massive amount of stock in. But, it's one of many objective tools that we can use to explain the difference between the 6'3 Rask and 6'0 Raycroft.
Goaltenders tend to be a rather unpredictable lot, and Lacher was not the first rookie sensation to flame out, nor Raycroft would be the last. But given his background, his pedigree, and his extremely high level of success in his rookie season, it's very unlikely that Rask is going to join that unfortunate group.