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Evaluating Tuukka Rask’s performance and worth to the Bruins

Are the Bruins getting their money’s worth, or could that money be better used elsewhere?

Boston Bruins v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

(Editor’s note: This post wasn’t written by me. It was written by a reader and frequent FB commenter, Colin B. He disagreed with the Rask piece we published yesterday morning, was offered a chance to state his opinion and accepted. Disagreements are good for discussion, and we always welcome opposing viewpoints.)

There is no denying that Tuukka Rask is a polarizing figure amongst Bruins fan, and that the endless sea of “hot takes” can be wearisome regardless of which side you are on.

As a result, this article will try to objectively measure the criticism/praise and determine if it’s warranted or not. It’s worth stating that on some level, any evaluation of a player’s worth or value is inseparably subjective, even when trying not to be.

I will largely use Rask’s performance and pay in relation to his peers to help evaluate him as objectively as possible. Before beginning a few key points must be referenced:

  • There is and will be a natural philosophical difference of opinion in regards to what a goalie is worth, i.e. value (% of cap) versus performance (win%).
  • The position the Bruins find themselves in is as much (if not more) a result of a truly poor front office as it is the fault of Rask or any other player/coach.
  • A lack of a competent backup goaltender (again, looking at you Don/Cam) has magnified the issues surrounding people’s feelings on Rask and his performance.
  • Finally, it is my opinion that in some regard, the play of Tim Thomas has influenced the opinion and method of measurement Bruins fans use to judge goaltenders. Watching Thomas win 2 Vezina trophies and backstop his team to a Cup win (in arguably the greatest goaltending display in modern history) has likely raised the level of performance expected of goalies in the minds of many Boston fans. For those of us who remember the goaltending before Thomas, it’s easier to appreciate Rask’s contributions. Whether this is fair or unfair is entirely up to the reader to determine.

Just the facts

Rask’s Salary: $7.5M with a $7M cap hit in 2016-2017 (% of cap = 9.59%)

Current Statistical Ranks:

  • GAA: 11th (2.38) vs. League Average (2.59)
  • Save %: 35th (.910) vs. League Average (.923)
  • 3rd highest paid at his position in NHL (H. Lundqvist, S. Bobrovsky)

Main points

1. The notion of needing an Elite™ goaltender is misguided in today’s game.

As shown in tables above, there has not been a single team to win a Cup with a top 5 highest-paid goalie in years. In fact, teams with the highest-paid goalie tend to fair worse than teams with less money devoted to the goalie position.

As the recent trend of SCF appearances (and wins) with rookie/young/inexpensive goaltenders shows, the value of spending $6.5+ million on a starting goalie and $7M or $8M+ on the goaltending position overall just isn’t there.

History has shown that that the $2-4M difference between an elite goalie and an average or above average goalie is better spent in other areas, which leads me into my second point...

2. Rask & Khudobin’s salaries are hurting the team’s ability to ice a complete roster

As shown in the table above, the Bruins are spending well above what the top teams in the league are spending on the goaltending position, and it’s inarguably hurting their ability to improve their defense corps or their forward depth.

3. Is Tuukka really Elite™?

No. He is an above average goalie whose decline has coincided with the decline in defensive talent in front of him. He was arguably, in large part, a product of an excellent defense corps and defense-first system in his earlier, more successful years and has been in significant decline with the loss and aging or inexperience of key defensemen, as well as the much more recent push away from a defense-first system.

He has not been a top 10 goalie in any major goaltending statistic in 3 years. Regardless of which method you use to measure the term elite, he is simply not elite.

An elite goaltender should still be at least top 10 at his position, even with a decline in the quality of the defense corps around him. He is the third-highest paid goalie on the planet and since signing his current contract in July of 2013, he frankly has not justified the contract in any meaningful manner.

4. History of coming up short in big moments & Talent vs. Mental Makeup

One of the most common refrains heard in reference to Rask is that he largely fails to “steal games” for his team, especially at crucial moments. This is a hard to thing to quantify objectively, as stealing a game is by nature a subjective viewpoint, similar to the “clutch” gene.

With that being noted, he has by and large failed under the brightest of spotlights, whether it was the epic collapse to the Flyers that cost him his starting job, the Olympic “issue,” the collapse in Game 6 against Chicago (objectively not his fault), missing the last game of the 2015-16 season versus Ottawa, the game he pulled himself from with migraines earlier this season and now pulling himself from arguably the biggest game of the year.

Cassidy confirmed prior to the Islanders game that it was in fact Rask declaring himself out. This came after some particularly scathing comments from his new coach, a tactic rarely, if ever, used by Claude Julien.

It must be noted that Cassidy also confirmed that Rask was not injured during the previous game. Listening to Cassidy’s comments, it is hard not to draw the conclusion he was criticizing Rask for pulling himself in such a big game, and in comparison he was effusive in his praise for the backup goaltender, going as far as to allege that it was good for the team to see their goalie battling to see pucks, clearly insinuating that that is not always the case with Rask in net (a criticism that has followed him most of his career in the NHL).

When looking at each incident individually, it is wholly possible to rationalize or justify his actions to a certain extent. But when taken in as a whole, it is clear that there is something worth discussing about his play and/or mental makeup in big moments.

It is also worth noting, that he has since been cleared to play on Tuesday and practiced fully on Monday which lends value to the theory that he was not in fact, significantly hurt enough to miss the Islanders game. For what it is worth, it is an unfair and difficult task to speculate about a player’s injuries or to accuse him of using it as a crutch or worse, but the optics around this event indisputably did not do Rask any favors in the court of public opinion.

It is probably fair to say that many criticize Rask for a lack of emotion shown on or off the ice, especially in comparison to his earlier career and incidents. Coupled with a laid back demeanor, this can easily be misinterpreted as having a lackadaisical attitude.

This isn’t a belief I personally hold, as I feel it is a “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” situation. If he shows emotion, he will be accused of not controlling his emotion; if he doesn’t he is accused of not caring etc.

Perhaps a bit more fair, his play on the ice is often times questionable in terms of effort in that he rarely makes an effort to push through bodies and see shots coming through the crease, and he has a penchant for giving up “soft goals” at times.

While these are still largely subjective measures, they are criticisms that have long followed his game and ones that even his coaching staff and network analysts have noted at various times in recent seasons.

5. The games-played argument is a valid, but not particularly strong

Rask has started the 7th most games of any goalie so far this year, the 7th most in 2015 and 3rd most in 2014. While he likely could use more rest and off days, it needs to be said that when he signed on to be the 3rd highest paid player at his position, the expectations for him were raised.

Playing a heavy workload is chief among these expectations. This is doubly true when he is needed in “must-win” games, and he has almost exclusively failed to live up to his contract by just about any measure in this area.

Should he play fewer games, and would he be more effective doing so? Yes, Zdeno Chara would also benefit from playing significantly less minutes, and Patrice Bergeron would benefit from prime offensive zone assignments. The highest-paid players and leaders are expected to shoulder the burden and, without question, he has failed to do so in comparison to other big-name players on the team.

Synopsis: Rask is not Elite™, and even if he truly was, the value in paying for an Elite™ goalie is largely debatable. As is often the case with anything or anyone polarizing, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

He is a highly talented and skilled goalie with limited success in key moments who has largely failed to justify his contract, much like some of his fellow Bruins.

He certainly isn’t terrible or even below average, and he has at times carried a flawed roster, but he also doesn’t deserve the undying loyalty his fans have shown him either.

Options: In a vacuum, the Bruins are likely better off using potential salary savings towards a better defense or forward core and carrying on with a suitable but not Elite™ goaltender as their starter.

However, with the debatable ability of the Bruins front office to make successful roster and cap moves, this remains highly unlikely.

Ideally, in my opinion they would sign an average to above average goalie (e.g. Scott Darling for cheap money, say ~$4M) and either expose Rask in the NHL expansion draft or trade him for whatever return they can muster.

In addition to these moves, the Bruins should seriously consider drafting a goalie in this year’s draft, with neither Subban nor McIntyre looking ready to play in the NHL.

All data and statistics provided by Spotrac, Capfriendly, Hockey-Reference and NHL.com