The biggest decision the Boston Bruins have to make in the offseason is whether to bring back starting goaltender Tuukka Rask or let him leave as an unrestricted free agent.
It's a franchise-altering choice that will significantly impact the short and long term future of the team.
Rask wasn't great in the second-round loss to the New York Islanders. He finished the series with a .897 save percentage and a 2.86 goals against average. He allowed four or more goals in three of the six games, including the last two.
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Injuries also played a part as he was not 100 percent healthy in the playoffs and admitted after Game 6 that offseason surgery is a possibility.
What he wasn't willing to talk about was his future with the B's.
“We’ll see. I don’t have any thoughts right now. It’s a pretty tough loss,” Rask said. “I’m gonna sleep a few nights and we’re gonna have our exit meetings and start planning for the future.”
So, what do the Bruins do with Rask? Is it time to move on?
In a way, yes.
Jeremy Swayman is the future in net for the Boston Bruins. The rookie goalie established himself as a legit NHL-caliber player in 2021. He posted a 7-3-0 record with a .945 save percentage and a 1.50 GAA in 10 games during the regular season. He looked poised and comfortable in net as well.
The Bruins should transition to Swayman being the No. 1 goalie next season, but bringing back Rask on a one-year deal at a smaller salary cap hit (between $3-5 million) than his current deal is the best-case scenario.
Why bring Rask back for one more season?
Well, it wouldn't make much sense for the Bruins to just turn the keys over to Swayman and Daniel Vladar. They have a combined 15 games of regular season NHL experience (and all were in empty buildings with no crowd).
Two unproven netminders is not the ideal duo for a very good team with a veteran core that features superstars such as David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Charlie McAvoy. What if the Swayman/Vladar tandem isn't ready for the spotlight? The B's cannot afford to waste another year of Marchand and Bergeron, who are both on the wrong side of age 30.
Rask and Swayman splitting time next season and the latter establishing himself as the No. 1 goalie by midseason would be great for the Bruins. In that scenario, Swayman goes into the 2022-23 campaign as the undisputed starter with more than a year of experience under his belt and the B's can sign a cheap/reliable veteran backup, similar to what they did with Jaroslav Halak filling in for Rask over the last three seasons.
Bringing back Rask also gives the Bruins protection if Swayman gets hurt or isn't as good as his rookie season would suggest. Swayman looks like the real deal, but goaltending is a tough position to predict long term.
Just look at the Philadelphia Flyers.
Carter Hart had a breakout 2019-20 season and it looked like the Flyers had finally found a star goalie who could anchor their team for the next decade. But then Hart, who's just a year older than Swayman, took a massive step back in 2021. He posted a 9-11-15 record with a .877 save percentage and a 3.67 GAA. The Flyers missed the playoffs as arguably the league's most disappointing team.
There's also a chance that Rask doesn't want to return. Maybe he'll retire. It's been a tough last couple years for him. He's 34 years old and the injuries he battled this season clearly took a significant toll on him. He played in just 24 of the 56 regular season games and wasn't at 100 percent health all playoffs.
Either way, it's time for the Bruins to plan the ending of Rask's tenure in Boston.
Swayman played fantastic when given the opportunity this year, and his entry-level contract saves the Bruins valuable salary cap space that can be used to help bring back other free agents such as Taylor Hall (UFA), David Krejci (UFA) and Brandon Carlo (RFA). The Bruins have around $22 million in cap space, which should be enough to keep Rask and Krejci on smaller deals and bring back Hall at a reasonable number.
Swayman is the guy, but until we see a full season of quality goaltending from him, it makes sense to keep Rask for one more year to ensure a smooth transition for the former University of Maine star.