While the Boston Bruins’ best backup goaltending choice for next season might seem less obvious now than earlier in the year, it continues to tip the scale.
With incumbent backup Chad Johnson and top Providence netminder Niklas Svedberg both approaching free agency, the latter remains the better option to re-up. The rewards outnumber and outweigh any mild drawbacks in that potentiality.
The way Johnson spelled his skillful superior and fellow 27-year-old Tuukka Rask was a pleasant surprise for Boston in 2013-14. As a free-agent import from Phoenix, he made New England hockey followers forget about Anton Khudobin.
That allowed Svedberg to keep honing his game in the AHL for the bulk of the year. In between, he mustered one appearance in The Show, stopping 33 of 35 shots to help win a 3-2 overtime decision over Nashville on Jan. 2.
The Bruins should have sought more opportunities to give Svedberg a look at a full-fledged NHL-caliber strike force. The regular-season finale in New Jersey, when Boston promoted four forwards but no one else, comes to mind.
Come what may, Johnson’s 2013-14 campaign yielded a multifold backing for those who believe next season is Svedberg’s time. Johnson has sculpted a case to seek thicker ice in someone else’s crease. His latest set of skating mates has verified that it can function with a green goaltender with little delay.
In a May 19 write-up for CSNNE.com, columnist Joe Haggerty drew the following conclusion:
Johnson would give the Bruins some piece of mind if he does return instead of handing the job over to a P-Bruins’ youngster like Niklas Svedberg, or Malcolm Subban, but it would appear his potential return to Boston isn’t imminent, and the Bruins will be looking to pluck another AHL goalie to turn into a completely serviceable puck-stopping force.
Despite what Haggerty implies, there is no reason why that next AHL goalie cannot be homegrown. Where the incumbent Providence stoppers are in their development, keeping both and elevating both on the organizational depth chart ought to work for 2014-15.
Svedberg turned heads in his first year of North American competition, landing the 2012-13 Baz Bastien Award as the AHL’s top netminder. His .925 save percentage was good for third in the league and his 37-8-2 record catalyzed Providence to first place in the overall standings (the P-Bruins were 13-13-3 when he was not the goalie of record).
It is hard to be delicate about the data he posted in 2013-14. Providence plummeted as a whole, and his save percentage dipped to .910, which joined a swollen 2.63 goals-against average.
While less than ideal, Svedberg’s sophomore slip is not as alarming as one might assume. Ditto his modicum of authentic extramural NHL experience.
For every wretched outing Svedberg turned in with the P-Bruins, there was a reminder of his brilliance. In the freshest example, he helped Providence extend its season for one night by repelling 36 of 37 shots by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Should he become Rask’s full-time crease colleague, he can expect to play roughly one quarter of next season. That will be a suitable departure from playing the majority of a schedule that crams two or three starts into every weekend.
Because Boston will lean on him less often and less heavily, he will have better odds of consistently flaunting his plus points.
Also note that the masked man Svedberg is vying to supplant came to the Bruins with a similar transcript. The journeyman Johnson had a slender sample size of NHL appearances (10 total) and mixed results in the AHL.
In 2012-13, Johnson was 16-15-1 in 34 games with the Portland Pirates with a 3.00 GAA and .903 save percentage. He returned to the minors for three postseason games and allowed 12 goals on 118 shots in 204 minutes.
That was his final impression before Peter Chiarelli inked him, but it hardly proved to presage a bane in Boston.
As Johnson augmented his NHL repertoire over the past year, he retained a 2.10 GAA and .925 save percentage. He claimed the decision in 24 of his 27 appearances, posting a 17-4-3 record.
That, one can claim, is a hefty credit to the system in front of him. It is safe to assume the Bruins will employ the same basic system next year for Rask and anybody who spells him.
Like they did with Johnson and Khudobin before him, Boston’s skaters can work with Svedberg to establish mutual trust with relative facility. With that said, Svedberg will need to do his part to earn that trust for 2014-15 and maybe beyond.
Therein sits the solution to the short-term salary aspect.
The Bruins do not have much cap space to work with ($9,120,357), and Svedberg may not be the most cost-effective choice among backup goaltending candidates. In fact, even as the organization’s third-stringer this past year, he had a heftier NHL salary than the second-stringer.
Johnson carried a $600,000 cap hit on his one-year pact, matching his cost to the Coyotes the year prior. If the Bruins make the unlikely choice to re-sign him, a similar salary would be easy to envision.
Had he been an NHL regular, Svedberg would have had $858,750 worth of space on Boston’s payroll in 2013-14. With his potential, he is likely to command more than that, even if it is a negligible uptick, this summer.
Add the fact that his actual NHL salary this past season was $925,000. His next cap hit will surely be no lower than that.
But until he is a proven performer in The Show, he need not go far, if at all beyond the seven-figure plateau.
Financially speaking, Boston’s worst-case scenario for 2014-15 should entail reserving an even million in cap space for its backup. That would be only $400,000 more than what they needed to employ Johnson in 2013-14.
The Bruins could seek a cheaper deal by trying to re-up Johnson or by signing a less expensive stopper from another organization. But their best option would be to extend their alliance with two specimens of searing potential in Svedberg and Malcolm Subban.
Subban, a rising second-year pro, deserves a chance to take on the clear-cut No. 1 role in Providence. The Bruins would also be wise to give him a handful of looks in Boston when the situation is appropriate.
Naturally, the only way to make that happen is to clear the congestion on the farm and elevate Svedberg to the NHL backup slot.
If the need arises and a quality replacement is readily accessible, keeping both prospects also means preserving a potential spare part to use as trade bait down the road. The more Svedberg and/or Subban unveil during the 2014-15 season, the more either could help the Bruins address a need elsewhere.
Otherwise, Svedberg's best-case scenario entails growing into his game and giving Rask a little more of a harmless push. He can do that by growing more into his 6’0”, 176-pound frame as part of his summer training on the heels of a renewed deal with the Bruins.
It is on the front office to initiate the motivation before or shortly after July 1.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com.
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