As I listened to boos rain down on Malcolm Subban from the TD Garden’s preseason crowd mixed with chants of "we want Tuukka," I was stuck by the irony of the situation. I had been at several games during Tuukka’s time here in Boston that both preceded and succeeded the Stanley Cup victory and Tim Thomas’ two Vezina Trophy wins. There were more than a few games in which Tuukka was not a shining star – games that we still see from him and other elite goaltenders every now and then as any great player is subject to have – and he was warmly greeted with chants of "we want Thomas" from the Bruins fans at the TD Garden.
Goaltenders are often the most scrutinized players on the ice. They must do more to earn the unconditional love of a fanbase with time and triumph, and even then, they may often still get booed off the ice. It happened to Patrick Roy, and since he is hilarious and awesome, he would just respond with his own way of giving the fans the finger. He could do that because he is Patrick Roy, the ultimate example of an elite goaltender to have success from the very onset of his career at a ripe young age. He is also crazy, which I suspect is what it takes for many goaltenders to decide they want to, in fact, be goaltenders.
Patrick Roy was drafted 51st overall in the third round by the Montreal Canadiens in 1984 out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He was 18. He played in one NHL game in the following season, 1984-85. He finished that season in the AHL, where he lead the team to the Calder Cup championship as a 19-year-old. He then made the NHL out of training camp for the 1985-86 seasons, and led the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup championship and won the Conn Smythe trophy. He is the youngest player to ever win the Conn Smythe. He was 20 years old.
Most goalies don’t make the NHL as teenagers, nor are they expected to. It would be counter-productive to their development by putting them in a situation they aren't fully prepared for. They reach their prime at a later age because they take longer to develop, and much longer to adjust to the nuances of the pro game than the forward and defensive positions. If they are coming from the CHL, as Roy and many other great goalies, they usually need at least a season of adjustment in the AHL before they are ready for the NHL. (This is why the AHL rules. You'll all see when Niklas Svedberg is Tuukka's back-up this season and is the most awesome of all the back-ups)
Which brings me to my point. Why would you boo a 19 year old goaltender out of the arena for losing a preseason game to a Red Wings team that iced almost their entire NHL roster? Malcolm Subban is 19 years old, had a roster in front of him of half AHL players and half NHL players playing like they were rookies themselves. It was an embarrassing night for the Bruins all around on Thursday night, and Subban didn’t play very well, but booing the poor kid is just stupid.
Yeah, he will survive. He will probably need to get used to it too if he’s gonna play in Boston again in the future. Maybe he’s not mentally tough enough, or is still not as good a goaltending as he will be. But we already know that, which is why it is already the plan to have him play in the AHL in Providence for this upcoming season. The preseason serves multiple purposes, and one of them is to measure where your prospects are at in their readiness to join the NHL.
No amount of logic or fact will persuade most of the fans in attendance last night or fans still crapping on him today that they should not have been booing Subban or chanting "we want Tuukka" at him. But I’m going to try anyway.
Let’s look at a more comparable goaltender to Subban, because comparing him to Patrick Roy is ridiculous. He had success as a teenager and 20-year-old in the NHL, but that happens so rarely. The only other example I can think of is Martin Broduer, who was drafted 20th overall in 1990 and has spent his entire career in New Jersey. Yet he, too, still needed an entire season in the AHL before he was ready to make the jump to the NHL. He didn’t make the NHL full-time until he was 22. He won the Calder Cup Trophy as a 22-year-old, and the Stanley Cup as a 23-year-old.
We all known Tim Thomas took an unusually long time to make it to the NHL, even for a goalie. He, too, is usually an exception to the rule when discussing what to expect out of good goalies. His sample size for NHL success is subsequently small because he didn’t make it for so long. But he had success, obviously, and then went off the deep end. Tuukka Rask has refined his game quite a bit since his rookie season and earned the reputation of an elite goalie. He was drafted 21st overall in 2005 and traded to the Bruins before he ever played for the team that drafted him, the Maple Leafs. He never played Canadian junior hockey. He was drafted out of a Finnish league, where he played until he was 20 years old. He then spent his first two pro years in North America in the AHL, being awesome and taking the Providence Bruins to the Calder Cup playoffs both years.
Subban was drafted in the first round at 24th overall by the Bruins in 2012. Contrary to what a surprising amount of Bruins fans think, he was not drafted for the sole purpose of trolling Montreal. He was a top OHL goaltender and had great success playing junior hockey for three seasons. Tuukka helped Finland win a bronze medal at the World Junior Championship in 2006, while he was still playing in Finland, but after he was drafted by Toronto. Subban, too, was the starting goalie for his home country of Canada in the WJC the year after he was drafted. Not that that really matters, but I thought it was an interesting overlap.
Even goalies that can be successful at a young age, as a rookie, like Roy and Brodeur, are rarely able to sustain that for more than a few seasons. Goalies that win the Calder Cup Trophy for Rookie of the Year often see their game deteriorate over time and become the goalie we trade to Toronto for Tuukka Rask. Or they get picked first overall and win a Cup with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins only to become the biggest joke of all the starting goalies in all of the land.
How a goalie will play in the future is always a big question mark, and at such a young age, you can only hope for the best in a talented young prospect in net. Booing him off the ice in a preseason crapshow probably isn't the best way to express that hope that any fan should innately have for their franchises prospects.
Since he turns 20 in December, Subban qualifies for the AHL. He is done with juniors, probably having taken everything he could from playing there. He is ready for the next step, which is a full season in the AHL. At least one full season. Maybe more. But that was the understanding all along, and I’m just a little sad that Bruins fans don’t understand that.