He's back. Sort of.
After signing a professional tryout contract with the AHL's Providence Bruins on Thursday, Tuukka Rask is close to getting back into proper game action. Both of Providence's contests this weekend were cancelled due to COVID-19, so his actual return will have to wait, but it's drawing near.
It won't be long until the UFA is back with the big club, either.
"We have a plan in place (with the Boston Bruins)," Rask said. "It shouldn't be an issue. Next week, I should be with the big guys."
If that's the case, Boston will need to figure out its goaltending situation quite quickly with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman already in the picture. In theory, Rask should fight his way back into the top spot and, ideally, help Boston on its road for another Stanley Cup run in a season that has seen its ups and downs.
But we also need to be realistic here: Rask hasn't played an NHL game since June 9, 2021. He missed time during the playoffs with a torn hip labrum, something he managed to play through for a few games but to limited success. It's hard to recover from hip surgery as a goaltender, especially at 34 years old and in the twilight of your career.
Don't expect the Rask we used to know. And the Bruins likely won't, either. But that's OK.
Of goalies with at least 200 games played since Jan. 1, 2011, Rask's .921 save percentage is tops in the NHL, and his 45 shutouts are second behind Marc-Andre Fleury's 52. Five goalies have more wins in that span. So when it comes to being among the elite of the elite, There's no question that the 2014 Vezina Trophy winner is one of the best goalies of his generation, and he played well enough last year to suggest he still has a lot of good hockey in him. In his past 65 games, Rask has an overall regular-season record of 41-13-8 -- playing on a great team helps, but we dare you to find a player on the Bruins that wouldn't call Rask one of the most important pieces of the puzzle.
But at his age, and after coming off of major surgery, expectations for his return need to be tempered. The Bruins sit fourth in the Atlantic Division, just one point ahead of Detroit. That's good for eighth in the Eastern Conference and second in the wild-card race. Boston is anything but safe at this point, and maybe Rask helps fix that. But the next few weeks will likely be slow as Rask gets back into the thick of things.
The team signed Ullmark to a four-year contract over the summer, giving them a more long-term option with the understanding that Rask wasn't returning anytime soon. But Swayman has been the better of the two goaltenders this year, so sending him down would be tough to properly justify. If Swayman is indeed the goalie of the future, the Bruins could elect to move Ullmark and use Rask as a mentor for Swayman moving forward.
But that's easier said than done. Ullmark hasn't lived up to expectations on his deal that holds a $5-million AAV, so trading him is easier said than done. It'll be interesting to see how the Bruins handle that situation, because once Rask gets healthy, it's hard to imagine him not being a better option if he can hit even 80 percent of what he's typically capable of.
Sending Swayman down to the AHL doesn't require waivers, though, thus making it the easiest solution. Swayman has been a legitimate Calder Trophy contender this year, although a bit of a longshot, and has been such a positive force in the organization the past two years. He could be a big addition to Providence and help them try and force a championship run while getting the bulk of the starts -- and that's fine for a 23-year-old with limited pro experience.
There's no perfect solution, but the Bruins had to prepare for a world without Rask. At the time, Ullmark, one of the top UFA goalies on the market, looked like a good fit for Boston. But Ullmark had his own injuries to overcome and his play has been a hindrance for the Bruins at points.
Rask probably won't take this team to the top of the standings, but if he gets comfortable quick, he should make the team better. But nothing is certain at this point: Ben Bishop said he felt great before playing one AHL game last month and calling it quits after surgery of his own. Rask said he feels good to go, but there's zero guarantee that he'll be ready to take on a noticeable workload right away.
Bruins fans should still be excited. Rask has meant so much to this team during his tenure and his time isn't done just yet. The changing of the guard is coming, but Rask's return should be a positive boost for a team that really needs it right now.