|Date with Destiny: Celtics Set to Face Lebron, Cavs in Return to Playoffs||2015 NBA Playoffs Expert Picks: First Round||Will the Real Clay Buchholz Please Stand Up?||Connelly’s Top Ten: Patriots Day Weekend!|
Last fall, the Boston Bruins entered the hockey season with the defending Vezina Trophy winner and an up-and-coming back-up netminder in a campaign that led the league in save percentage and placed second in goals allowed. This season, however, the roles have reversed; the Vezina Trophy winner now finds himself riding the pine after posting a losing record, while the apprentice has now become master between the pipes.
Tuukka Rask, entering his first season as the clear-cut No. 1 goalie, led the league in both goals against average (1.97, the only one less than 2.00) and save percentage (.931, the only one above .930), beating out Ryan Miller, the Vezina Trophy winner, in both categories. Despite only winning 22 games, Rask’s youth and shutdown play helped him to supplant Thomas as the starting goalie.
With almost all of last year’s defense, which helped both Rask and Thomas to the fewest goals allowed in the league, returning (save for Dennis Wideman, who was shipped to the Florida Panthers in the trade that brought Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell to the Hub), Rask should have no issue maintaining the numbers he posted last year. Since he’ll be getting the nod for more games, a Vezina Trophy in his future isn’t too much of a stretch to envision. Additionally, assuming he’s physically recovered from last year’s unspeakable collapse in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, more hardware should be in store for the Bruins as a team.
The Bruins faithful had high expectations for Thomas last season, which were only raised with the personal trophies he brought to town. While many would say the journeyman goaltender failed to meet any of these expectations, it’s hard to say Thomas still didn’t have a great season. His 2.56 GAA and .915 save percentage kept him in the top 20 in both categories, making Boston the only team besides the Montréal Canadiens in the league to have two high-performing goaltenders. Because the Bruins offense sputtered to last place in the league, the minor differences between Rask’s and Thomas’s numbers made a huge difference, putting Thomas on the bench.
The big question with Thomas this season is whether he will stay in Black & Gold for all of it. His $5 million annual contract makes him the most expensive backup in the league and four times the salary cap hit that Rask is. He seems to have recovered from his off-season hip surgery well, so the only hurdles to unload Thomas are his no-trade clause and his salary. However, if the offense, which includes this year’s 2nd overall draft pick of Tyler Seguin, is as explosive as it should be, who wouldn’t want Thomas as a second option?
Behind Rask and Thomas, waiting down I-95 in Providence will most likely be Nolan Schaefer. Schaefer, who signed with Boston this summer after playing in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League for CSKA Moscow, is the most experienced of the goalies in Providence, having played in seven (yes, just seven) career NHL games with the San Jose Sharks, recording five wins. It’s unlikely Schaefer will mind playing in Providence, however, seeing as the Saskatchewan-native holds the all-times saves record at Providence College with 2,848 saves.
The Bruins don’t only have depth at the forward position; they’ve got plenty of it between the pipes as well. The key to last year’s success in the net will be ensuring that Rask avoids a sophomore slump, similar to Thomas’s hardware hangover that cost him the starting job. However, assuming Thomas is completely healed, the Bruins certainly won’t be in trouble if Rask does have a slump. Who else has a Vezina Trophy-winner for a backup?