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Tuukka Rask played most of his 2021 season with a torn labrum. He labored through the pain during two intense playoff series with the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders. Yet, some deemed Rask’s competitiveness as selfishness.
These are the same deniers who didn’t give Rask the benefit of the doubt for leaving the postseason bubble in Toronto last year to attend to a family matter. No matter what he does on or off the ice, he’ll always receive critiques for every minute error.
The Bruins lose? It’s all his fault, even if he did all he could to keep them afloat in a low-scoring game. They have thin depth on D — as witnessed in the second-round matchup against the Isles in the three games without Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller? That’s on Rask, too.
Every accolade Rask achieved was met with silence from his naysayers. But the moment he allows a puck by him, they come out of the woodwork.
All of this reared its ugly head in Boston’s porous season-ending loss on Long Island Wednesday night. Rask clearly struggled to bail his team out from the constant head-scratching turnovers. He committed a bad giveaway himself on an errant pass to Mike Reilly in the second period of a one-goal hockey game. The calls for Jeremy Swayman began earlier in the day and only intensified with every goal allowed.
Some of the critiques toward Rask come with the territory. The outspoken detractors began their campaign in 2010 after the Bruins blew a 3-0 second-round series lead to the Flyers. To put some things in perspective, the injury-plagued Bruins trotted out Trent Whitfield as their third-line center as the likes of David Krejci and Marco Sturm missed a significant portion of their series. And Tim Thomas, the man who spearheaded Boston’s first Stanley Cup triumph in 39 years the season after, was dealing with a hip injury throughout the 2009-10 season, prompting Rask to the starting role earlier than expected.
As he confirmed his plans for offseason surgery, Rask acknowledged the detractors in his year-end Zoom call. There, the 34-year-old confirmed that he doesn’t intensely view social media. Nor does he listen to the likes of Mike Felger and Tony Massarotti. Nor does he read the wide-ranging coverage of Boston’s professional hockey club.
“There’s a reason I don’t read social media, or the news really. Because when you get caught up in that, it might be mentally tough. But it really doesn’t affect me because I don’t hear that noise,” Rask said. “I think I’ve said it many times before, but people have opinions. They have the right to say whatever they want to say as long as it’s within good limits. I respect that.”
Certain critiques of Rask are fair game. There’s concern that he can’t get the Bruins over the hump after another early playoff exit. Certainly, the Bruins’ brass will put that into consideration as they ponder over Rask’s future with their all-time winningest netminder set to hit the free-agent market.
Rask has no plans to play for anyone but the Bruins. He can go about his everyday life without hearing much of the heat, even in the rare instance that a random stranger approaches him in a public setting.
“It doesn’t affect my game. I feel like every time I go out on the town or whatever, people have been really supportive,” Rask added. “It’s not like I go to the grocery store and people are throwing eggs at me or yelling at me. That might suck.”
The proverbial egg throwing comes from his detractors. But it doesn’t come from any one of his teammates.
And surely, they had his back in their final media availability of this unique 2021 season.
“I think Tuukka is definitely one of the best goalies in the whole world,” David Pastrnak said, “and I definitely don’t think he deserves the criticism he’s getting just because he left on a family basis. Family comes No. 1 for every single person in the world, and health is No. 1 no matter what you do and no matter what business you are in. I have a huge amount of respect for Tuukks, and I don’t think the criticism is right.”
“The criticism he gets is just insane. It’s gotta be people who just don’t watch closely or what, but we all know what Tuukka brings and how good he is, what he plays through, what he’s done for us and the organization,” forward Charlie Coyle added. “For anyone to criticize him…I guess someone used the word ‘bozo’ before. It’s just stupid.”
Whether you agree with Coyle, or his labeling of Rask’s haters as “bozos”, the Bruins face a significant decision with Rask, David Krejci, Taylor Hall, and the rest of their pending UFA and RFA class.
No doubt, Swayman will receive an extended look at the No. 1 role come the fall as Rask heals from his offseason surgery. Ideally, Sweeney adds another backup before Rask’s return — perhaps in February — over starting the season with a young tandem of Swayman and Dan Vladar.
The good news for the Bruins: money won’t be at the forefront of the discussions. Rask, as well as Krejci and Hall, all admitted they’d take a discount to remain in Boston. Yet, Sweeney needs to play it smart if he brings back the UFA trio.
The Islanders exposed Boston’s thin defensive and bottom-six depth without Carlo and Miller. The Bruins need a steady and physical hand on the back end, and they’ll likely need to find that through free agency or trade given the slow development of young defensemen in the prospect pipeline. That, along with Sweeney’s shaky draft history, provides Boston’s general manager with a tough task to add the necessary pieces for another potential run with their aging core.
Surely, Rask wouldn’t provide a bad short-term option as a 1A or 1B netminder as Swayman continues his development. But, with the backlash toward the seventh-year GM at an all-time high, Sweeney needs to allocate some of his offseason budget to extend Boston’s cup window. His job may ultimately depend on it, with or without Rask.
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