Bruins goalie prospect Malcolm Subban wants to back up Tuukka Rask in the NHL this season, but is that what’s best for him – or Boston?
It was the moment he’d awaited for years. Then it was a tortuously slow affair with no end in sight. Then it was over in the blink of an eye. Somehow, Malcolm Subban’s NHL debut was all three.
The Boston Bruins’ prized goaltending prospect earned his first start Feb. 20, 2015 against the powerhouse St. Louis Blues. Plenty of pundits speculated Subban would start the game prior, against the lowly Edmonton Oilers, for an easier test, not to mention a trade showcase for an opponent still seeking a long-term No. 1 at the time. Instead, Bruins coach Claude Julien threw Subban to the wolves. But, hey, it was a vote of confidence for a netminder chosen 24th overall in the 2012 draft and rated as the No. 3 prospect at his position in THN Future Watch. And Subban had more than earned a shot in the midst of a second straight stellar campaign with AHL Providence.
The dream came true but quickly became a nightmare. The Blues didn’t manage a shot for the first 13 minutes. They put three pucks on net in the first period. Then came a sudden second-period barrage, in which they peppered Subban and pumped home three goals in the first 5:09. Julien gave a shell-shocked Subban the hook.
“It was really exciting and thrilling, but it was tough,” Subban said. “If you ask any goalie, it’s tough when you’re not getting a lot of action and then all of a sudden you get a flurry of shots. I wish it went a little better, but I’ll be ready for my next opportunity.”
About that next opportunity. The great question is when it happens and how extended it should be. There’s no defined code for how to break in an elite prospect goaltender, and it’s something we constantly debate in the THN office, especially since every team handles it differently.
Anaheim’s John Gibson started Game 7 of a playoff series against the eventual Cup-champion L.A. Kings in the 2014 playoffs. Gibson floundered. The following season, while working around some injury woes, he started a bit in the NHL and also earned AHL work just to experience a larger workload. The Ducks’ No. 1 job now belongs to Frederik Andersen. In Colorado, Calvin Pickard did a masterful job starting when Semyon Varlamov was hurt, leading the NHL in save percentage for a while when he had enough outings to qualify. Upon Varly’s return, however, GM Joe Sakic and coach Patrick Roy kept expensive backup Reto Berra with the big club and returned Pickard to AHL Lake Erie to play more often. In Tampa Bay, after Evgeni Nabokov’s mid-season retirement, the Lightning permanently promoted blue-chip tender Andrei Vasilevskiy. They didn’t have the depth anymore to let Vasilevskiy start in the AHL. He came in awfully handy as the No. 2, spelling the injured Ben Bishop during the Stanley Cup final.
Gibson is 22, Pickard 23, Vasilevskiy 21. Each was handled differently by his parent club. So what does Boston do with Subban, 21? He doesn’t have much left to show in the AHL. His season-to-season numbers are quite consistent, as he went 15-10-5 with a 2.31 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 2013-14 and 16-13-4, 2.44, .921 last season. He believes he’s earned a bigger shot at The Show.
“Every year you try to develop as much as you can,” Subban said. “I feel like last year I took that big stride. I feel pretty confident right now, to be honest, going into camp. We have a few good goaltenders in camp, so we’ll see what happens, but I definitely feel like I’m ready for next year.”
Subban has good reason to feel confident given the Bruins’ current goaltending crop. Tuukka Rask is entrenched as the starter. He’s light years ahead of the pack. But with Niklas Svedberg off to the KHL, Subban will battle for NHL backup duty against Jeremy Smith, who has toiled in the AHL for parts of six seasons without seeing a minute of NHL action. Smith did share the crease with Subban in Providence last year, however, including in the playoffs. It works in Subban’s favor that Smith, unlike Svedberg last year, has a two-way contract. On the other hand, Subban doesn’t have to clear waivers upon reassignment, whereas Smith does, so that helps Smith’s case. Another threat to steal the No. 2 job is free agent Jonas Gustavsson, a training camp invite who has the experience edge. The long shot is college rookie Zane McIntyre.
Even if Subban is good enough for full-time NHL backup work, though, is that the best thing for him? He admits it’s challenging to wait long intervals between shots during a game. In a way, being a backup is an exaggeration of the same circumstances, forcing goalies to maintain their focus despite long layoffs between starts. But Subban believes he’s best off in the NHL right now. Even if it’s playing a little versus playing a lot?
“I understand what you mean, but for me, as a player, growing up…from the OHL to the AHL, once I got in and got comfortable, I did really well coming in as a young guy,” he said. “So I feel like I can do the same in the NHL. I’ve done it at the last two levels and succeeded there. So, looking at it the same way at the NHL level, I could play until I’m 28 and develop in the AHL, you know what I mean? So who’s to say when the age is? For me, I definitely feel like I can jump up there, and I’ve had a good couple seasons in the AHL.”
“Young upstart wants to play in NHL” is hardly a shocker. Of course Subban feels ready, Any confident young goaltender should. It’s a question of whether Julien, goaltending coach Bob Essensa and GM Don Sweeney believe Subban is their best backup option right now. The competition isn’t the fiercest, and Subban has trained hard all summer, finding a bit of time to hang with brothers P.K. and Jordan when he can. Malcolm’s fate will likely come down to how he performs in camp and the pre-season.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin