For well over a decade, the last thing the Boston Bruins have had to worry about was goaltending. They were able to seamlessly transition from Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas to Tuukka Rask. Even when Rask was dealing with injuries, they’ve always had capable backup goalies. Jaroslav Halak, who has been the backup for the last 3 seasons is a good example of that. Now that Rask remains unsigned (due to injury/for now), Halak has found a new home in Vancouver, and Dan Vladar got traded to the Calgary Flames, the Bruins have opted with a new tandem of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. Heading into the 2021-22 season, is this a tandem to be excited or nervous about?
Since 2008-09, 13 seasons have come and gone and the Boston Bruins have finished with a top 10 goals against per-game average 12 times. The only outlier was in 2015-16 when they slipped to 19th place, allowing 2.78 goals per game. In that time, they’ve finished with the best goals against average twice, second best three times, and a top four finish nine times. Tim Thomas won the Vezina trophy twice, Tuukka Rask won it once, and they both won the William Jennings Trophy once apiece. On top of that, Rask has had a top 7 finish in the Vezina voting 3 additional times.
To add onto the great starting goaltending they received, the Bruins have had stellar backups all throughout. After the Bruins moved on from the Thomas-Rask tandem, behind Rask they had a great season from Chad Johnson and Niklas Svedberg, and then 3 years apiece from Anton Khudobin and Jaroslav Halak. Goaltending has never been an issue in Boston.
Claude Julien and Bruce Cassidy have had great defensive systems aided by some great blueliners. Zdeno Chara was the workhorse every team dreams of having. Alongside Chara they’ve had some notable names like: Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference, Torey Krug, and Charlie McAvoy among others. Whether it was the defensive system, the defensemen, or the goalies, or a combination of all 3, the Boston Bruins have been the epitome of goal prevention for well over a decade.
As a starter, Tuukka Rask played in 458 games and finished with a record of 259-128-55 and 41 shutouts. He’s had to deal with a few injuries and personal issues over the last few years but that hasn’t been too much of an issue because of how dependable Jaroslav Halak has been as a backup. In three seasons, he played in 90 games and finished with a record of 49-23-14 and 10 shutouts. On top of their individual success, the Bruins finished with the 4th best, the best, and 4th best goals against per game averages, respectively, in the those three years.
Tuukka Rask, like David Krejci, only wanted to play for Boston. So the Bruins didn’t have too much to worry about when they both hit free agency, in regards to other teams trying to sign them. However, with Krejci retiring and Rask still nursing an injury, the Bruins had no choice but to find a new starting goalie. There were a few options available during free agency but because of their cap situation, Linus Ullmark best fit the bill.
Playing in Buffalo hasn’t been an easy task lately and it’s probably even worse if you’re a goaltender. In the last 3 seasons they’ve finished last place, 25th, and 27th with Ullmark taking the lion’s share of appearances. Considering the team around him, he posted a winning record of 50-47-13 with a .912 save percentage and a 2.78 G.A.A through 6 seasons. Ullmark was never the problem in Buffalo and his stats, especially his peripherals, paint that picture even brighter.
Backing up Ullmark is going to be young Jeremy Swayman, who appeared in 10 games last year during a very crucial juncture of the season. He went 7-3-0 with a .945 save percentage and a 1.50 G.A.A and 2 shutouts. With the Bruins in the thick of a heated playoff race in the East Division, Swayman came up big whenever called upon and essentially usurped Halak by season’s end.
Once Swayman entered the picture, Halak only appeared in 2 more games and lost the backup job for the playoffs. He handled his business against the lowly Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, and Buffalo Sabres going 5-1-0 and then did just as well against the New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Bruins knew what they had in Swayman and they showed him all the confidence in the world by letting him play as much as he did during the stretch run and then giving him the backup job for the playoffs. The writing was on the wall for the grizzled veteran, Jaroslav Halak, as the Bruins were most likely moving forward with the younger netminder for the 2021-22 season.
We can’t rule out a return for Tuukka Rask either as his return date is still unknown. It’s speculated that he could return anywhere between December 2021-February 2022, which is why signing Ullmark was that much more important. If it was a month or so, then they could’ve maybe given Swayman the starting job and the young Kyle Keyser the backup role but with the uncertainty of his injury and future, Ullmark is the starter for the foreseeable future.
Rask has mulled with the idea of retirement before and has stated multiple times that he only wants to play for Boston. However, maybe once fully healthy, he gives it one more kick at the can and signs a one year deal mid-season. Going with a three headed monster of Ullmark-Rask-Swayman could be a lethal combo, especially if injuries come into play.
Even if Rask is completely done with the Bruins and the NHL, fans shouldn’t worry too much. Rask is a Bruins legend and should be considered one of the all-time great goaltenders to don the black and gold. He has been fantastic ever since taking over the starting job in 2012-13. With his age and injury history creeping up, the Bruins did the best they could to find the replacement for the present and future.
Ullmark is still only 28 years old and Swayman just 22 and even though they’re both a little inexperienced, they have shown flashes of brilliance whenever called upon. Swayman will play the role of a young Tuukka Rask, backing up Ullmark for a few years before he’s ready to take the reins.
Ullmark in the mean time will have a much better defense and team in front of him, so his numbers should only go up from here. Posting a winning record on a team that never finished higher than 25th place, is a pretty phenomenal feat, and Bruins fans should be excited to see what he can do when placed in a winning environment. Taylor Hall is a good example, especially since he also came from Buffalo. You reap the rewards, individually and as a team, when you’re placed in an environment that allows you to succeed.