Tuukka Rask is one of the Bruins’ three most important players. Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron are the others.
Rask’s new contract reflects his standing alongside the captain and alternate captain.
On Wednesday, Rask agreed to an eight-year, $56 million bonanza. Rask’s $7 million annual cap hit is the largest on the team, a shade over Chara’s $6,916,667. The eight-year term is the maximum allowed for a team to re-sign its own players.
Rask was a restricted free agent. The 26-year-old goalie would have become an unrestricted free agent after 2013-14.
Rask was eligible for arbitration. Had Rask gone to arbitration, he could have nabbed an even higher annual payday.
Rask is tied with Pekka Rinne for the highest annual cap hit among NHL goalies. Nashville signed Rinne to a seven-year, $49 million contract. Henrik Lundqvist, who will reach UFA status after 2013-14, could edge past their salaries with his next contract.
For Rask, the megadeal underscores that he and agent Bill Zito made the right call last summer by signing a one-year, $3.5 million extension. At the time, the Bruins wanted to lock up Rask to a multiyear deal. But Rask bet on himself by taking the temporary bridge extension.
“He wants to prove that he’s the No. 1 goalie for the Bruins for a long time,” general manager Peter Chiarelli said after Rask agreed to his one-year contract. “So this was the easiest way to set the stage for that. Tuukka’s been a really good goalie for us. But for one year, he hasn’t been the No. 1 goalie. The stage is set for him, and we’ll see where it takes us.”
Rask made a smart bet. In his first crack at being the ace from start to finish (albeit in a 48-game season), Rask proved he is one of the NHL’s elite goalies. During the regular season, Rask went 19-10-5 with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. Rask posted an NHL-leading five shutouts.
Despite his regular-season performance, Rask was not one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy. Sergei Bobrovsky (21-11-6, 2.00 GAA, .932 save percentage) beat out Lundqvist (24-16-3, 2.05 GAA, .926 save percentage) and Antti Niemi (24-12-6, 2.16 GAA, .924 save percentage) to claim the prize as the NHL’s best goalie.
But Rask made a strong push for the Conn Smythe Trophy because of his postseason performance. Rask went 14-8 with a 1.88 GAA and a .940 save percentage. Rask recorded three shutouts, two of which took place during the second-round sweep of the explosive Penguins. Rask helped keep Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, and Kris Letang off the scoresheet through four games.
The contract reflects the Bruins’ belief that Rask’s best performance is yet to come. Rask is four years younger than Rinne. Rask is a perfect fit for coach Claude Julien’s defense-first system. Given his age, pedigree, and accomplishments, Rask could challenge former colleague Tim Thomas as the sharpest goalie in team history. Internationally, Rask will fight Rinne for ownership of Finland’s net for several Olympic cycles, including the upcoming 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Rask was originally Toronto’s first-round pick in 2005. But the Bruins pulled off a bank job when swiping Rask from the Maple Leafs for Andrew Raycroft on June 24, 2006. At the time, the Bruins had hired Chiarelli from Ottawa. But Chiarelli was still under Ottawa’s employment. Interim GM Jeff Gorton was at the Boston helm when the Bruins acquired Rask.
In 2009-10, his first full NHL season, Rask displaced Thomas as the No. 1 goalie. In 45 games, Rask went 22-12-5 with a 1.97 GAA and a .931 save percentage. Rask backstopped the Bruins to a first-round win over Buffalo. But Rask faded in the second round against Philadelphia.
Rask was Thomas’s understudy in 2010-11 and 2011-12. Rask did not appear in any playoff games in either season. Rask suffered a groin injury on March 3, 2012, that made him unavailable for five of the seven playoff games against Washington.
Rask will most likely be backed up by veteran Chad Johnson. The Bruins signed the ex-Phoenix netminder to a one-year, $600,000 contract last Friday. On the same day, former backup Anton Khudobin signed a one-year, $800,000 deal with Carolina. Prospects Niklas Svedberg and Malcolm Subban project to be the two Providence goalies.
The Bruins are now over the $64.3 million cap. They have approximately $65 million committed to 13 forwards (including Marc Savard), seven defensemen, and two goalies. Teams are allowed to exceed the cap by 10 percent ($70,730,000) during the offseason. The Bruins do not have to be under the ceiling until the day after the preseason concludes.
The Bruins could trade players to open up cap space. If they do not make any deals, they will place Savard on long-term injured reserve at the start of the regular season. The Bruins can then exceed the cap by all or part of Savard’s $4,007,143 average annual value.
Bergeron’s extension is next. He will also land an eight-year deal. Bergeron’s new contract will be effective in 2014-15.Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.