In a perfect world, which may not exist when the subject is goaltending, the Bruins figure they would dial back Tuukka Rask’s workload by about 20 percent in the upcoming season. He’s 30 years old now, underwent surgery to repair a groin injury in May, and has averaged nearly 70 games a season the last three years.
“In theory, if you throw out a number of, say, 25 games,” mused general manager Don Sweeney, “if you knew a backup was going to be in there for 25 games, I think we’d be in an awfully good spot.”
Recent history, however, shows that reality can be a harsh teacher, particularly in net. With his understudies Niklas Svedberg (2014-15), Jonas Gustavsson (2015-16), and then Anton Khudobin (2016-17), Rask the last three seasons never was able to enjoy the recovery time necessary between starts to keep his game sharp over an entire season.
Now with the start of training camp less than a month away, the question remains: Who will provide Rask’s respite?
“I think we feel comfortable,” said Sweeney, mulling his options for the spot, which include the likes of Khudobin, Zane McIntyre, and Malcolm Subban. “But is it locked down? No.”
The obvious contender is the gregarious Khudobin, 31, who returned here last summer for a two-year deal worth $1.2 million a season. The plan then was for Khudobin to start a game a week, leaving Rask in the range of 55-57 games.
But Khudobin’s injuries and inconsistencies, which stretched late into the season, played a large part in Rask working 65 games, all the while fighting the groin injury that afflicted him from the start of the season.
“If it’s the Anton that played at the Island and Chicago, I don’t think anyone would move on from him,” noted Sweeney, reflecting on two of Khudobin’s end-of-season wins, when the Bruins needed points to clinch a playoff berth.
Nonetheless, Sweeney went into the summer still in search of what he called “an absolute, definable guy to come in and support Tuukka.”
With the Bruins unable to find that guy, the future looks a lot like the recent past: Coach Bruce Cassidy will have to figure it out with the Khudobin-McIntyre-Subban cards he’s been dealt.
Of the three, the 6-foot-2-inch McIntyre, about to enter his third pro season, could be the most intriguing. The former University of North Dakota standout went an impressive 21-6-1 with AHL Providence last season, and then was perhaps the No. 1 reason the team made it through three rounds of the Calder Cup playoffs.
McIntyre, who’ll turn 25 Sunday, also slotted into the backup role when Khudobin was injured. He failed to win (0-4-1) during his stint with the varsity, but he played well for long stretches of games, especially vs. the Leafs and Canadiens.
“Toughest league in the world,” said McIntyre. “You give a player an inch, he’ll take a mile, so that’s what I’ve learned. Hey, you’ve got to stay the course.
“Obviously you learn and grow from what happened, and the experiences you’ve been able to be a part of and build on it. At the end of the day, I am only getting better.”
Subban, a first-round pick (No. 24) in 2012, watched McIntyre claim the No. 1 job in Providence early last season when a knee injury hurt Subban’s performance. The previous season, after stringing together 14 wins, Subban had his season ended months early by a freak injury, a shot in pregame warm-ups fracturing his larynx.
With four pro seasons complete, Subban has but two NHL games to his credit, both of which lasted only 31 minutes.
“Boston’s the team that drafted me, and obviously it’s the team you want to play for,” said Subban, who, like McIntyre, signed a two-year contract extension last month. “When a team uses a first-round pick on you, it’s a pretty big deal, in terms of the investment. I feel I kind of owe it to them, and the fans, to show I can do it.”
His two NHL outings, a candid Subban noted, ‘’were terrible,” lingering memories that motivate him to show that he can succeed at the next level. He’s hoping 2017-18 proves his road to redemption.
“It’s tough when you’re called into those situations,” said Subban. “You feel if you don’t have your best game, you’re going to get sent down, so you overthink stuff.
“I wouldn’t say it was so much nerves, but losing focus in there because I wanted to do so well. I’d be thinking of a million things and not focusing on the game.”
John Ferguson Jr., the Providence GM, remains encouraged by what he has seen of Subban’s game. The athletic assets are obvious: Subban is bold and lightning-fast in net. But his technical skills and overall net management remain a struggle. Those aspects of his game will be a focal point for Mike Dunham, the club’s newly hired goaltending development coach.
“He continues to be such an outstanding physical specimen,” said Ferguson. “He has four years of pro and still projects to be a No. 1.
“The timeline . . . whatever it takes. There’s just too many examples of goaltenders — Devan Dubnyk, Scott Darling — guys that may not have that immediate or even near-term success. They continue to improve as pros and prove they are ready a little further down the line.”
Subban, only 23, is the same age that many NCAA Division 1 goalies are upon finishing college. Most of them would need at least a year or two in the minors before making the jump to the NHL.
“Because of his age, he still has the ability to move up,” said Ferguson, “probably as a No. 2 first, and then maybe challenge for a top spot.
“He’s not unlike a lot of guys at that position; his numbers are good, but you’re still looking for more consistency, and frankly, to stay healthy and do it.”
In the three seasons the Bruins have searched for the backup answer, Rask went 102-63-26 for a .602 winning percentage (based on 230 of 382 points). His backups went 25-26-4 (.491). The ideal would be to have someone step in like Chad Johnson in 2013-14, when he went 17-4-3.
Working a more comfortable 58 games that season, Rask finished 36-15-6 (.684) and his save percentage was .930, his highest since claiming the No. 1 job following the departure of Tim Thomas.