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Stolen goods

Getting Rask from Leafs turned into a great deal of success for Bruins

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / April 15, 2010

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On June 24, 2006, the Toronto Maple Leafs committed a once-in-a-generation flub when they swapped Tuukka Rask to the Bruins.

It was an error whose roots trace back to the third round of the 2004 draft, when Toronto selected Justin Pogge. When the Bruins came calling in 2006, it was Pogge, not Rask, whom the Leafs considered their future ace goaltender.

“At the time of the trade, we were fortunate that Toronto had two young blue chips in goal that weren’t ready,’’ said Jeff Gorton, then the Bruins interim general manager, in an e-mail. “And they had an immediate need for a No. 1.’’

Three mistakes led to an organization-altering blunder. With former GM John Ferguson at the helm, the Leafs pegged Pogge as a potential No. 1. They considered Andrew Raycroft (8-19-2, 3.71 goals-against average, .879 save percentage in 2005-06), then No. 3 on the Boston depth chart behind Tim Thomas and Hannu Toivonen, a go-to NHL goalie. And they didn’t project Rask, one of three names atop the Bruins board in 2005 (Toronto selected him one spot before Boston nabbed Matt Lashoff), to be better than Pogge.

“Raycroft’s agent had already asked me to be moved prior to that draft day that we got Tuukka,’’ Gorton wrote. “When we talked about Raycroft with Toronto, the name we kept coming back to was Tuukka. Things worked out.’’

In 2006-07, Raycroft went 37-25-9 with a 2.99 GAA and an .894 save percentage for Toronto. The following year, as Vesa Toskala’s backup, Raycroft’s GAA swelled to 3.92 while his save percentage dipped to .839 over 19 games. The following summer, Toronto bought out the final year of Raycroft’s contract. Raycroft now serves as Roberto Luongo’s little-used backup in Vancouver.

Pogge appeared in seven games for the Leafs in 2008-09, going 1-4-1 with a 4.35 GAA and an .844 save percentage. On July 10, 2009, Toronto traded Pogge to Anaheim for a 2010 pick. At the March 3 trade deadline, Anaheim flipped Pogge and a conditional fourth-round pick to Carolina in a deal for Aaron Ward.

Rask, meanwhile, will make his NHL playoff debut tonight against the Sabres after an expectations- busting regular season. Lowest GAA in the league. Best save percentage. Had Rask stood between the Toronto pipes this year, the Leafs might not have finished in 29th place, thus giving the Bruins a crack at drafting Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin in June.

Things could change for the 23-year-old goalie. But so far, the 2006 trade doesn’t just qualify as a win. The last time someone in Boston committed such a high-profile heist, they were hightailing it out of the Gardner Museum with armfuls of Rembrandts.

Growth stock
There remains little doubt that two training camps ago, Rask was the Bruins’ best goalie. In exhibition games, Rask went 1-0-1 with a 1.48 GAA and a .952 save percentage, outperforming Thomas and Manny Fernandez. As his reward, Rask was assigned to Providence, a demotion he didn’t take well.

“No,’’ said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “Not one bit.’’

Rask wasn’t ready for the NHL. The year before, as an AHL rookie, Rask was on a Providence club loaded for a Calder Cup run. Current Islanders coach Scott Gordon led a Providence team featuring five 20-goal scorers (Pascal Pelletier, Jeff Hoggan, Chris Collins, Matt Hendricks, Martins Karsums). But in the second round, Providence was upset by Portland. An inconsistent Rask (6-4, 2.18 GAA, .908 save percentage) was a big reason why.

“We had a great team to make that run,’’ Rask said. “Just little things made a big impact in the playoffs. The power play wasn’t working. In the second round, I wasn’t playing at my best. All little things making the big picture.’’

So before Rask could get a big-league opportunity, he needed to grow up. Take practices seriously. Put on weight. Start three games in a 45-hour span (AHL teams usually play at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, then drop the puck at 4 p.m. on Sunday). Sharpen his mental approach to match his technical and athletic prowess.

“He wasn’t ready,’’ Chiarelli said. “I watched him and watched him and watched him. He wasn’t ready. He may beg to differ. But that’s what makes Tuukka competitive.’’

Last season, Rask did everything asked of him. In 57 games, he posted a 2.50 GAA and a .915 save percentage. In the playoffs, he elevated his game, going 9-7 with a 2.21 GAA and a .930 save percentage.

“He really carried our team at times, deep into the playoffs,’’ said Andrew Bodnarchuk, Rask’s Providence teammate last season. “He stole a lot of games for us in the regular season, too.

“He’s the type of goalie who’ll make the save once in a while when most people really don’t think a save should be made. He’s really clutch. He just calms the game down for you, too.

“Last year, once guys got scrambling around, he can really slow the game down and make the key save. And make it look simple, which goes a long way for guys.’’

On March 20, 2009, Rask got attention for the wrong reason. In a 0-0 shootout against Albany, Rask got into it with referee Frederick L’Ecuyer. The referee ruled that Jakub Petruzalek had scored a goal. Rask believed he had stopped his forward progress, then shot the puck.

Then, L’Ecuyer gave the goal sign to Harrison Reed, but Rask thought the forward’s shot off the crossbar never crossed the line. Rask flipped. As he skated toward the runway, Rask sent his stick twirling across the ice. Once he reached the runway, he heaved a milk crate over his teammates and onto the ice.

“Right over the top of my head,’’ a smiling Johnny Boychuk recalled. “If I was about 5-10 feet further ahead, it probably would have hit me.

“Hey, I was mad, too. Everybody was mad. It just so happened to be a milk crate going by. Tossed it like Joe Montana.’’

Rask earned a game misconduct and a 10-minute misconduct. His bosses didn’t really mind.

“I told him not to do it again,’’ Chiarelli said. “But I said, ‘That’s the type of fire you don’t have to show overtly, but that’s the type of fire I want in players and goalies.’

“Tuukka has a calm demeanor about him, in contrast to Tim. They’re both competitive, but Tim’s got more battle. But a fire burns in Tuukka. We’ve seen that. That’s one example of it.’’

Stealing the show
Tonight, when Rask steps between the pipes at HSBC Arena, he will start a career segment the Bruins didn’t envision him beginning for at least another year. He was supposed to serve as Thomas’s apprentice, perhaps starting 20-25 games, and watch as the defending Vezina Trophy winner carried the Bruins in the playoffs.

But a downturn in Thomas’s game, combined with Rask’s yearlong excellence, made the coaching staff’s decision an easy one.

“He just got better and better,’’ coach Claude Julien said. “It got to a point where he was so good that you couldn’t do otherwise than keep putting him in. Simple as that.

“A lot has been said about Timmy. But it’s not Timmy. It’s what Tuukka has done. If you look at the goaltenders around the league and you look at Timmy’s stats compared to a lot of No. 1 goalies around the league who are playing a lot, he’s right up there with them.

“We just have a goaltender who’s surpassed those stats. He’s No. 1 in goals-against and No. 1 in save percentage. Logic took over. It’s as simple as that.’’

Rask has exhibited few holes in his game. As a butterfly goalie, he takes away just about everything down low. When he drops down, because of the strength in his back and hips, Rask can stand tall and close down holes upstairs.

Perhaps his only weakness is how he stickhandles when he leaves the crease, which might prompt the Sabres to dump pucks to places where he has to go out and retrieve them.

The only question is how the rookie will respond in the playoffs. Julien isn’t worried about that.

“Not much rattles him,’’ said the coach. “If something was going to rattle him, it would have rattled him in the last month.

“The games we’re about to play are the same games we’ve played the last month. We were fighting for our lives trying to get in the playoffs. It’s the same situation in the playoffs. Every game you play, you play for another day.’’

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