No team wants to hear that its Vezina-Trophy-winning, future Hall-of-Fame goaltender needs hip surgery and won’t play hockey again until at least January 2022.
We sure about that?
In the year 2021, during the era of the flat $81.5-million salary cap, on a team with a truckload of difficult free-agent decisions to make, the timing and, more importantly, the timeline of Tuukka Rask’s injury could be a blessing for the Boston Bruins.
Before factoring in any missed time for Rask, GM Don Sweeney had a migraine-inducing to do list to figure out this off-season. In net, Rask and veteran battery mate Jaroslav Halak are both UFAs. With late-season call-up Jeremy Swayman delivering on his prospect pedigree and establishing himself as a future star, one of Rask or Halak had to be expendable moving forward. That was clear after Swayman pushed Halak to third on the depth chart by the time the post-season arrived. Sweeney, then, would have to choose between the more accomplished and expensive Rask, 34, or the older but cheaper and healthier Halak, 36.
At forward, the Bruins finally solved their secondary scoring woes this season thanks to the off-season signing of right winger Craig Smith and particularly thanks to the April-12 trade for left winger Taylor Hall. Armed with two viable scoring wingers, second-line center David Krejci played his best hockey in years. The Bruins’ powerhouse top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak scored 48.1 percent of Boston’s goals in 2020-21 before the Hall trade. After it, including the playoffs, it was 42.8 percent for line 1 and a healthy 28.9 percent for Round 2. The problem: Hall and Krejci are both UFAs this off-season. Add them to the priority re-signing pile with Rask. Sweeney said earlier this week that there’s mutual interest in Hall re-signing and that the team hopes to bring Krejci back, too.
On defense, Sweeney must work out a new contract with burly second-pair blueliner Brandon Carlo, who has likely earned an AAV in the $4-million range. The Bruins also really liked the puck-moving lift they got from deadline-day acquisition Mike Reilly, and guess what? He’s a UFA. Oh, and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy, who broke out to become the all-round horse Boston needed him to be and likely received some down-ballot Norris Trophy votes, is eligible to sign an extension beginning this off-season. Put him down for an AAV north of $7 million – maybe even $8 million if we use Ottawa's Thomas Chabot as a comparable.
Factoring in possible bridge pacts for depth contributors such as left wingers Jake DeBrusk and Nick Ritchie, the Bruins’ projected $26.98 million in cap space suddenly doesn’t feel like a lot. And that’s where Rask comes in. His injury can help Don Sweeney navigate the salary-cap waters in multiple ways.
Even before Rask got hurt, the Bruins had leverage over him. He’d publicly stated he wanted to play in Boston only or retire, which set him up for a hometown discount price, especially on a team known for a culture in which its star players take less money than they’re worth for the sake of winning. Swayman’s breakout came in too small of a sample size to make Rask expendable, but it did show the Bruins that they have legitimate depth behind Rask, which could also shrink his price. Now the injury drops his worth even further.
On the flip side, the injury could become a cap weapon for Boston since Rask could be placed on LTIR if they sign him before he's healthy, allowing Boston to exceed the cap by up to 10 percent during the off-season. That said, it would still be a risky game to play, as it’s tough to imagine Boston “pulling a Nikita Kucherov” with Rask and bringing him in only for the 2022 post-season when the cap no longer matters. That strategy simply doesn’t work with a goaltender, who needs repetitive game action to find his rhythm and can’t just dive into the playoffs cold. So if Boston does sign Rask in the off-season, it probably makes sense to do so at a number that isn’t exorbitant. Think $5 million – then place that number on LTIR.
And if the Bruins can do that? Welcome back Hall, Krejci and perhaps Reilly. Pay up for Carlo and, in 2022-23, McAvoy. Hope that the Seattle Kraken pluck a decent-sized salary or RFA's projected salary off the roster to assist with cap compliance for 2021-22. Sign a cheap veteran stopgap like James Reimer to hold down the net in tandem with Swayman for the first half of next season. Not only does placing Rask on LTIR – or making a handshake agreement to sign him later in the season once healthy – give the Bruins far more financial flexibility during an off-season in which they badly need it, but his layoff will also give the team more time to evaluate Swayman and see if he’s ready to be their No. 1 netminder in 2022-23 and beyond.