To the surprise of no one paying any attention since training camp began, the Bruins Friday named rookie Jeremy Swayman to start in net for the season opener Saturday night at the Garden against Dallas.
Right kid. Right choice. All of that will remain true even if the results end up all mangled and wrong once the final horn blows around 9:43 p.m. Which is to say goaltending is always a risk.
Swayman, 22, outperformed veteran free agent signee Linus Ullmark in training camp, and the ex-UMaine stopper undeniably earned the start. Swayman has a history of placing a death grip around such opportunities and becoming his team’s No. 1 goaltender, but let’s all get through the first 60-something minutes before anointing the sparkly-eyed kid from Anchorage the next franchise stopper.
“Linus understood,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, noting that the coaching staff explained the choice to both men. “We need both goaltenders. One day at a time. And we’ll go from there. That’s the conversation we had with them.”
Expected? In the immediate, yes, because Swayman proved to be plug-and-play ready. Ullmark, who arrived in town for unofficial team workouts approximately three weeks after Swayman, wasn’t nearly as sharp or dialed in during his three preseason appearances.
But it took a four-year, $20 million guarantee to woo Ullmark here as a free agent, so to a degree it is, shall we say, counterintuitive that he’ll be strumming second fiddle when Cassidy raises the baton at the Causeway concert hall.
The pick to go with Swayman is a vivid reminder of the importance teams place on trying to win off the hop in an 82-game season. All 32 NHL teams want to bank points from the get-go. Too often, clubs positioned out of the playoff hunt at the season’s quarter mark are the same ones forced to the brink of exhaustion while chasing the rest of the pack for the remaining months of the season.
Cassidy made it clear Friday that Swayman, who appeared in only 11 games as a first-year pro last season, was still somewhat of an unknown commodity when camp opened.
“It’s a new year, and you say, ‘Hey how did he spend his summer? Does he have the attitude that, I’ve arrived now, or is it, hey, I’m fighting for the net every night and I want to be good in practice?’ ” mused Cassidy. “It was obviously the latter. He’s a great kid that way.”
The Bruins made Swayman, then an 18-year-old out of the USHL, the 111th pick in the 2017 draft. Again, let’s not get too far ahead, but he looks to have both the skills and attitude to become a bona fide NHL No. 1 and potentially a franchise stopper.
But consider both the risk, and rarity, within that projection, particularly when it comes to the Bruins. Their last draftee to become a legit No. 1 was Bill Ranford, selected at No. 52 in 1985. Swapped early on to Edmonton, he backed the Oilers to their lone post-Gretzky Stanley Cup in 1990 and ultimately logged 647 regular-season games.
In the 31 years between picking Ranford and Swayman, the Bruins drafted 24 goalies and not one ascended to NHL workhorse status. In fact, 10 of them — including first-round pick Evgeni Ryabchikov (1994) — never appeared in a single game for Boston.
The best of the bunch was Andrew Raycroft. The Razor was selected Rookie of the Year in 2004, but he delivered his greatest value when the Bruins flipped him to Toronto for Tuukka Rask in 2006. The only other goalie draftee to come close was John Grahame, chosen 229th in ‘94. He played 224 NHL games, albeit only 76 of those with the Bruins.
Enter Swayman. Maybe he finally turns out to be the guy, the keeper of their dreams, the needle in a haystack that has piled high across 31 years of barren harvests.
“When you’re drafting unfinished products, you have to allow that [development] process, and sometimes you get impatient with it,” said general manager Don Sweeney. “They get experience, and then it comes to the NHL level, and then it’s whether you are in ‘win now’ mode or you can give them a little bit of rope. That can work in your favor or work against you.”
The goaltending issues the club focused on in the offseason, noted Sweeney, centered around Swayman’s readiness, the move to bring in Ullmark to augment/complement the rookie’s play, and whether Rask eventually would be able to play in the wake of hip surgery.
“You have to turn the page at some point in time — the circle of life dictates it, in every walk,” said Sweeney. “And hockey’s no different.”
The organization, noted Sweeney, feels Swayman is ready to handle this next stage both mentally and physically.
“And we’re going to find out in short order,” said the GM.
Swayman arrived at Maine in fall of 2017 and was expected to be Rob McGovern’s backup. He quickly filched the No. 1 role and held it for his three seasons in Orono.
The same scenario was true for Swayman in his two seasons prior to Maine, first with the AAA Pikes Peak Miners and then at USHL Sioux Falls. Backup one day. Full-fledged No. 1 the next.
In the thick of his one season at Pikes Peak, Swayman was pegged to play both ends of a one-day doubleheader. He had quickly ascended to the established No. 1 spot.
“It’s my net, coach,” he said following the Game 1 win. Bench boss Greg Vanover wasn’t sure whether to start Swayman or yield to partner Ty Bever in Game 2.
Vanover pointed Swayman to the net, but first told him that he would yank him if he gave up a single goal. With the puck about to drop, Vanover made his way down the bench to talk to Bever.
“I said to Ty, ‘Look, I’m serious, if he lets one in, be ready,’ ” recalled Vanover. “Ty looks at me, ‘Yeah, he ain’t lettin’ one in.’ And that was it. We won, 3-0.”
The puck is about to drop on a new season, and for starters, “Sway” is the way in the Bruins net.