Forecasters who see any measure of merit in recent history can make a confident case for Rask to repeat his title. Since 2008-09, Boston’s system has doubtlessly helped him and Tim Thomas claim a combined three of the last six Vezinas.
In another one of those years, Rask turned in an NHL-best 1.97 goals-against average over 45 appearances as a rookie. Playing three-quarters of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 regular season, he coupled a 2.00 GAA with a .929 save percentage.
Based on that trend alone, rightly or wrongly, other contenders will likely need to bump him aside by force. Innumerable outside elements will need to coalesce to convince the league’s general managers not to at least file him under the three finalists.
En route to last year’s Vezina victory, Rask struck off a succession of residual doubts from previous years. With a game log of 58, he proved he could hold up as a bona fide starter for a full-length NHL season.
What’s more is that he did it on the heels of a run to the 2013 Stanley Cup Final and a resultant short summer. He even threw in an overseas Olympic excursion, seizing the starter’s position in a deep pool of Finnish netminders.
Even if fellow finalist Semyon Varlamov was a worthier 2014 Vezina recipient (and one could easily make that case), Rask more than cemented his elite persona. The 27-year-old is now in the neighborhood of Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick among NHL stoppers who are the best when everyone is on top of their game.
The most recent Stanley Cup Final, in which Quick’s Kings vanquished Lundqvist’s Rangers, replenished that notion. The 2012 Conn Smythe and 2012 Vezina recipients played no small part in their clubs' respective runs.
None other than Rask has proved that post-Cup or post-finals hangover need not dock a goalie’s performance the next season. In turn, Lundqvist and Quick each deserve a slot among the preseason favorites for hardware in 2015.
Elsewhere, rival Carey Price has a belated foundation to build upon. Montreal’s 27-year-old, seven-season veteran is coming off a career campaign with a 2.32 GAA and .927 save percentage. Not unlike Rask, he punctuated that run with a stellar Olympic performance, bolstering Canada’s gold-medal run.
If not for an injury that he presumably suffered in Sochi and which kept him out until March 15, Price’s performance might have radiated more. The 2014-15 season will be his shot at a more complete, consistent campaign to solidify his arrival in the top tier.
Naturally, none of this accounts for the ever-present possibility of a one-off contender or genuinely elevated bigwig crashing the scene. But those are virtually impossible to predict.
One internal element Bruins followers can predict is a quantitative and qualitative upgrade to the defensive corps in front of Rask.
Recall that Boston lacked the services of Dennis Seidenberg for the balance of 2013-14 after he went down with an ACL ailment on Dec. 28. Within three weeks of that misfortune, the injury-prone Adam McQuaid endured his own season-ending wound.
Although there was room for widespread credit when the club compensated for those deletions, the circumstances doubtlessly favored into the Vezina vote. One could say the same about Zdeno Chara’s status as a Norris finalist and Patrice Bergeron’s Selke victory.
As Caryn Switaj of the team’s website has repeatedly reported, Seidenberg is raring to return in top form. He has had an uninterrupted string of eight-plus months to recover and replenish his persona as a dependable stay-at-home veteran.
Assuming the worst is behind him, the only question surrounding Seidenberg’s return will be everyone else’s ability to ward off complacency. The youthful likes of Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Kevan Miller will still have their own expectations.
The team aspect of Boston’s defense should not precipitate a drastic change in Rask’s statistics. The key question is how much the general managers take the upper layers into account when their Vezina ballots arrive.
Their recent track record suggests they will not automatically look past those factors.
In 2013-14, Rask was first in save percentage among those with at least 30 appearances. He was second in GAA among those with that many appearances (first among those with more than 45).
Similarly, in 2012-13, he tied eventual Vezina victor Sergei Bobrovsky under the GAA heading among goalies who played at least three-quarters of the 48-game schedule. His .929 save percentage that year was good for third overall and second only to Bobrovsky among those who played more than half the season.
Yet whereas he won it all this past June, he was not among the three finalists for the goaltending royalty laurel the year prior.
Because nothing is likely to change overnight, Rask’s chances to repeat his title in 2014-15 span the range of the previous two seasons. It would not be a shocker if he does repeat, but the same will hold true if he finishes one rung shy of the finalists.
For all he has proven, he is not quite the NHL’s No. 1 netminder on a perennial basis. Therefore, back-to-back Vezinas is an overreaching proposition until he proves otherwise.
A top-three finish is the most logical expectation, though, as Rask has every team-oriented reason not to let his performance taper off. While he has verified his qualifications for the top echelon of his position, he and his skating mates still have too much of a purpose.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com.
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