How Comfortable Should Boston Bruins Be with Options for Tuukka Rask's Backup?

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How Comfortable Should Boston Bruins Be with Options for Tuukka Rask's Backup?
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Boston Bruins buffs probably already know not to flatter Chad Johnson too much over his 18-save, 2-0 shutout of the Detroit Red Wings in last Saturday’s preseason action. It was merely one game, with relatively light action, at the hands of half-Red Wings, half-Grand Rapids Griffins.

There is only so much these tune-up tilts can do to forecast how much stability Johnson or any of his crease-time competitors can establish in 2013-14. It is one thing to peak at the right time in one’s preseason audition, but quite another to sustain one’s A-game at a new level throughout a six-month stretch.

Still, every little bit helps in terms of simulating an authentic, full-length NHL engagement. As the team’s Twitter account relayed on Monday, Bruins coach Claude Julien has sought to give each stopper “a chance to play a full game” over the exhibition slate.

It is a smart move on Julien’s part to deviate the preseason norm of having each of the two dressed goaltenders play split the minutes on a given night. This particular stable of candidates to back up established starter Tuukka Rask needs to promptly resume the habit of playing the standard 60.

Does Julien’s approach expose the fact that there is a noticeable degree of uncertainty in Boston’s backup slot? Yes, but there is no way to hide that fact. Therefore, now is the time to start addressing it by attempting to build it towards comfort.

The Bruins made their moves in this department over the summer and now must be sure to make them work. They need to resist the temptation to glance back and instead run with their backup options.

They need to percolate a sense of healthy, internal competition in hopes that resultant, unwavering motivation brings someone above logical expectations.

Even if it is for one night apiece, the likes of Johnson and Niklas Svedberg can only benefit from playing a start-to-finish extramural contest in Julien’s system at a time when setbacks don’t stick. One or both of them will soon be stepping into a situation with more demands than they have ever assumed at this level and with little experience or margin for error.

Rask will try to answer his own question as to whether or not he is ready to assume a single-season workload in the upper 50- or lower 60-game range. So far, his most laborious NHL season has been a 45-game ride over the 2009-10 regular season.

That still leaves roughly 20-to-25 other games in which the Bruins must summon Johnson, Svedberg or maybe even Malcolm Subban.

In all likelihood, Subban will see action in no more than one or two NHL games, if any at all, as he is a professional rookie in 2013-14. His recent reassignment to Providence is an early indicator that it will be between Johnson and Svedberg to supplement Rask’s share.

Their predecessor, Anton Khudobin, left for Carolina via free agency this past summer and took with him more than twice the NHL experience of Johnson, Svedberg and Subban combined.

Within the shortened 48-game slate of 2013, Khudobin quantitatively tripled his resume with 14 appearances for a career total of 21. In addition, he spent the preceding lockout in Russia, playing 26 contests in the KHL, arguably the second-best circuit on the planet.

Conversely, Johnson is the lone current Bruins netminder (other than Rask) with any regular-season experience in the majors. He has logged a very sparse 10 outings with the New York Rangers and Phoenix Coyotes with no more than five in a single campaign.

Svedberg is coming off a brilliant first season in North America, having wrested away the 2013 Baz Bastien Award as the AHL’s top goaltender. But he is likely at a point in his development that's similar to where his fellow Scandinavian, Rask, was circa 2008.

Rask came over from Finland after the 2006-07 season and proceeded to spend the majority of the next two in Providence, where he was gratifyingly efficient. But the Bruins were never impelled to throw him into the top league too early and often, giving him a cumulative five looks in Boston before he essentially split the 2009-10 workload with Tim Thomas.

The team’s most ideal arrangement would be to do the same thing for Svedberg, firmly keeping him as the organization’s third-stringer for the time being and gradually drizzling some NHL seasoning on his transcript in 2013-14.

That, however, will only apply if Johnson can one-up Khudobin and prove himself capable of performing with a single-season workload in the upper teens without further delay. To do that, he is banking on utilizing some tips he absorbed behind the scenes in the presence of Ranger Henrik Lundqvist and Coyote Mike Smith, among others.

As Johnson also told CBS Boston’s Matt Kalman, having Rangers goalie instructor Benoit Allaire “…show me how to have success and be consistent, has obviously worked out really well. Especially at this level when things happen so fast and guys have less time, just for me to be in position and use my size, I think it benefits me.”

His next task is to perform according to his proclamation. Naturally, there is another prerequisite to showing that, namely proving he has permanently outgrown the AHL.

If not, the Bruins may need to occasionally rotate him out and summon Svedberg to fill in for a little more than a mere handful of NHL appearances.

Granted, there is always the possibility that Johnson and/or Svedberg will turn heads by tackling their elevated roles as needed. But the Bruins brass is in a bind that all but has them needing to hope for that exact scenario.

With a more stringent salary cap setting in this season, an external transaction of reliable quality in that position will be next to impossible. As they currently stand on capgeek.com, with 21 skaters and two goaltenders on their NHL payroll, the Bruins are $1,701,310 above the $64.3 million limit.

They could remedy that to a certain extent by placing injured forward Marc Savard on long-term injured reserve. However, as CapGeek itself explains, “The amount of LTI relief is limited to the amount the team has gone over the cap — less the amount of cap space the team had at the time the LTIR transaction took place — and not the entire amount of the injured player's salary.”

Translation: Boston will likely not have the means to obtain a cost-effective upgrade if it decides that none of its current backup candidates are ready. Therefore, it is on Johnson, Svedberg and possibly Subban to more or less prove they have each upgraded themselves. They must collectively spell Rask for roughly one quarter of this year’s 82-game itinerary.

It is the only way to stave off second guesses over the front office’s inability to retain Khudobin and the certifiable foundation he sculpted for himself last winter. Johnson’s apparent self-assurance is a plus point, but it will only remain so if it withstands the ups and downs of an entire October-to-April odyssey.

At least at the dawn of 2013-14, the situation should be a finger crosser for the front office.

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com

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