The hard numbers on Tuukka Rask continue to be easy on the eyes.
Since Rask took over the Bruins’ No. 1 goaltender spot from Tim Thomas at the start of 2012-13, only Braden Holtby has recorded more regular season wins (268 vs. 244). Among the league’s eight elite stoppers to log at least 400 games across the last eight seasons, Rask ranks No. 1 for both goals-against average (2.28) and save percentage (.921).
The new NHL season begins Thursday night for the Bruins. Rask, who will turn 34 on March 10, is expected to make his 516th career start in net, a spot he vacated abruptly last summer when he bolted the NHL bubble in Toronto on a Saturday morning just two games into an opening-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes.
What at the time loomed as possibly Rask’s last stand in the Boston net now appears to have been forgotten to time and the lingering fog of NHL COVID-19 recovery.
Contrary to summertime speculation, Rask was not traded. Also, as expected, he did not retire. Rather, he resumed dryland training in Brighton late in the summer, returned to on-ice workouts roughly a month ago, and currently acts and sounds like a guy eager to resume life as one of the game’s premier puckstoppers.
“No issues coming in here,” said Rask, asked last week about his re-entry with the team, many of his teammates stunned when he packed up in August. “We’ve been in touch during the summer and had discussions about whatever in life, with teammates, and there’s no issues coming back that I know of.”
Nonetheless, the new season is the last on Rask’s eight-year, $56 million contract, the richest deal ever for a Boston goalie. And the new season begins with Rask in need of re-establishing trust on the team and among the fan base — specifically, a belief in his game beyond his ever-dependable statistics.
Goalies are, arguably, always the most important player on the team. They must be trusted to be there, game in and game out, one shot to the next, no matter the opponent or circumstance. Rask, of late, has lacked that steadfast dependability. His departure from the bubble in the summer came after a highly unusual leave of absence in November 2018 when he abruptly left the club for a pair of games, later saying that he needed the time to make things right at home.
“I’m not going to make excuses,” he said upon returning to work after a three-day break. “I played good games and bad games because of my personal life. Strictly, it was just a time where I felt deep inside that I needed to take this and do it for my family’s future, and like I said, I’m happy I did.”
Regarding his departure from Toronto five months ago, Rask confirmed last week during a Zoom session that it was again a family situation that prompted the decision. Rask and wife Jasmiina have three children, all daughters: Vivien, 6, Adelie, 4, and Livia, nine months.
According to Rask, he received a call from home Friday night, Aug. 14, informing him that his “daughter wasn’t doing well . . . and they had to call an ambulance and everything.”
Rask, in an October story with The Athletic, said it was it his eldest daughter, Vivien, who required “medical attention.”
None of that was made public by the Bruins that morning. In fact, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney spoke of no emergency pertaining to Rask when he addressed the media that morning. Sweeney also stated that he wasn’t necessarily caught unaware by Rask’s departure, given the nature of his previous conversations with the goalie. If Sweeney knew of the family issue, he didn’t share it with the media.
“So obviously at that point, my mind is spinning and I’m like, ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’ ” said Rask when asked last week about Sweeney not disclosing such information. “So then the next morning I informed him. We had a brief talk and I just left.”
Contractually, Sweeney had the leverage to deal Rask over the summer. Per capfriendly.com, as of June 1 all trade restrictions governing the goalie’s contract expired, meaning Sweeney could have sought deals.
“No way was Tuukka ever getting dealt,” said one longtime, well-connected agent in November. “First of all, there were plenty of goalies out there. Beyond that, he’s got a $7 million cap hit. No one’s moving $7 million in this flat-cap environment. Even if Donnie wanted to deal him, he couldn’t.”
Equally true, and perhaps more important, Rask remains by far the best goalie in the Boston organization. Had Sweeney dealt him, the club would have been left compromised at the most important position, potentially all the more glaring in a season when veteran defensemen Zdeno Chara (Washington) and Torey Krug (St. Louis) have moved to new clubs.
Of those eight goaltenders to make 400 starts or more dating to 2012-13, only Rask, Carey Price (Montreal), and Pekke Rinne (Nashville) enter this season with the clubs where they made their names. Sergei Bobrovsky, Henrik Lundqvist, Devan Dubnyk, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Holtby all have moved on from their established roosts. Lundqvist, the great Rangers stopper, intended to play for the Capitals this season, but he required heart surgery and most likely has played his final NHL game.
With his back line a work in progress, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy figures he’ll have to lean on Rask perhaps even more than ever.
“I anticipate nothing but good play from Tuukka,” said Cassidy, after noting the possibility of a young defense forced the go through hiccups in the early going.
By Cassidy’s eye, Rask looked sharp last week, and he believes his No. 1 starter’s head is in the right place.
“To my understanding, everything is great at home with his wife and his girls,” said Cassidy. “So that is the most important, and that usually puts you in a good place to go to work, whatever your career is. That’s what I see with Tuukka. We’re going to need good goaltending.”
Rask said last week his daughter is fine. He also said he had no choice in August other than to return home, though noted that upon his return he struggled with the idea of not being with his team.
“It was a tough decision to leave, but then again, it wasn’t because I knew it was more important for me to be home at that time,” he said. “So that was easy to live with. On the other hand you are home, knowing that you kind of can be there, you should be there, playing hockey. So it is tough to watch the games.
“So you are kind of in this mental . . . you know, your brain is kind of spinning at that point, knowing, yeah, you are in the right place at home, but knowing you should be there, stopping pucks. It was tough for a few weeks, but it helped, you know, I was talking to Jaro [Halak] a lot, and to a lot of guys who gave their support. They knew what was going on, so there’s that.”
Rask last season started 41 of 70 games. The Bruins are scheduled to play their 56-game season over a span of only 114 days, a grueling pace of a game every other day for four months. Despite that tight fit, Cassidy hopes that Rask again will carry approximately 60 percent of the load, leaving the remainder for Halak.
“I don’t see any issue with that at all,” said Cassidy. “But again, that will depend on him, and a little bit of the spacing between games. The good news is, there’s not a lot of travel, so that can help a goaltender recover. That might edge his games up. That’s the plan and we’re not going to deviate much from that number, percentage wise. Then we’ll go from there.
“Again, we could get into the middle of March, not be where we want to be , and need more starts from one of the two goalies. So we’ll adjust accordingly, but that is the original plan.”
It will be Rask’s ninth consecutive season as the club’s No. 1 goalie, equaling the run Frank Brimsek had here starting in 1938. Tiny Thompson, 10 seasons as No. 1 (1928-38), in the only Boston tender to own a longer streak in Black and Gold.
In his 10 seasons as the No. 1 here, Thompson appeared in 463 games, while Brimsek logged 444 in his nine seasons as No. 1. Rask stands at 434 appearances in his eight seasons as leading man, and could surpass both this season.
“I just want to go out there, start the season off right, kind of get on a good groove, play good hockey as an individual and as a team,” said Rask, asked about his outlook now with his contract set to expire. “My main focus right now is get the season started off right and then worry about the future after that . . .
“I have no intention to play for anyone other than the Bruins. So if I can be good enough to play one, two, three more years, then so be it. If not, then so be it. That’s where my head’s at.”
The puck is about to drop on a new season and Rask, rested and clear-eyed, says things are good at home, his daughter is fine, and his head is right. How the Bruins fare this season likely will depend on that tricky balance not being disrupted.