How Tuukka Rask Re-Established Himself as an Elite Goalie

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistDecember 16, 2015

Boston Bruins' Tuukka Rask waits for a face off during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers in Boston, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015. The Bruins won 3-1. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

A superficial glance at Tuukka Rask’s numbers shows an average—perhaps even slightly below-average—goaltender. After all, he’s just a single game over .500 (11-7-3 record) on the season and his .912 save percentage is nothing to write home about.

What a superficial glance doesn’t show is that Rask hasn’t been a consistently mediocre starter. Instead, his 22 games this season split into three basic periods: a horrific start, a reasonable recovery and, finally, a return to the elite-level play that has characterized the majority of his NHL career.

Tuukka Rask by season segment
SegmentRecordSave Percentage
First 51-3-10.854
Next 84-4-00.915
Next 86-0-20.948

It is amazing how one bad five-game run can sink a goalie’s numbers in the early season. That stretch represents less than a quarter of his games played but more than 40 percent of the goals he’s allowed. As a result, despite very strong work in the 16 games since, his overall numbers still haven’t recovered.

His game, though, is back to where it needs to be. Rask’s early struggles weren’t entirely on him—the defensive group in front of him had some very real challenges—but he wasn’t the franchise goaltender he’s been for the majority of his Bruins career in the early going. That showed up less in him allowing flat-out bad goals and more in surrendering ones that he’d stop most of the time.

A good example is this Jonathan Drouin goal:

This is one of the worst goals Rask allowed in those first five games. He has a clear view of the shooter, the shot is telegraphed well in advance, there isn’t much side-to-side puck movement prior to the shot and the shot itself comes from just outside what’s normally thought of as the scoring-chance area.

In his first five games with Boston this year, Rask allowed two other similar goals for a total of three. In his next eight contests, he allowed two, with both of those involving a forward as a screen and a shooter on his off-side (giving him a better release angle on the net). In his most recent handful of games, he hasn’t allowed a single shot of that ilk.  

I went back and watched all 53 goals scored against Rask this year and rated them on two scales. The first was whether there was lateral puck movement immediately prior to the shot; those side-to-side passes force the goaltender to alter his position and make for a much tougher save.

The second scale was shot location, with a Grade A goal coming from the area directly in front of the net, a Grade B goal coming from the outer edge of the scoring chance area and a Grade C goal coming from outside the chance area entirely.

Shot quality & Tuukka Rask
SegmentLateralNot lateralGrade AGrade BGrade C
First 51391363
Middle 81541342
Last 8841011
NHL Game Center Live

A good example of a Grade A goal with puck movement is Drew Stafford’s goal in Rask’s first game of the year:

Rask never had any chance on that, and Boston’s defence was horrifying. Look at this freeze frame from right before the goal was scored:

Screen grab via NHL Game Center Live

Defenceman Matt Irwin chased a Winnipeg Jets player out of the box and then lackadaisically eased his way back into position, creating a three-on-two for Winnipeg. Ryan Spooner, the centre, overcommitted to his check (Ben Chiarot), and with a spin away from him, Chiarot suddenly had his choice of passing options in front of the net. Zach Trotman got caught between the two players, and the Jets took him and Rask apart.

Regardless of how well Rask is playing, he isn’t likely to stop that one. In all three segments there were a lot of Grade A goals, and the fact that there were more of them in the first segment suggests rather strongly that the defence was having major problems. In the first five games, the opposition was scoring 2.6 goals per game from directly in front of the net; over the last eight games, the number is less than half that.

Yet Rask was also allowing far more mediocre goals in that opening segment. Consider this Mark Scheifele marker from that same game against the Jets:

That’s not a bad goal, not really. It comes off an odd-man rush, there’s a pass right before the shot and the shooter is firing from the scoring-chance area. The thing is that it’s stoppable.

The pass doesn’t cross the middle of the ice, meaning that Rask has to make a much smaller adjustment than he would have if the puck was going to the far wing. The shot itself is from the far edge of the chance area; because it’s coming from farther out, Rask both has to adjust his position less and has more time to react to the shooter.

That’s the kind of goal that’s difficult to evaluate because it falls somewhere between “bad goal against” and “total defensive meltdown.” Every goalie is going to allow a few like that. So it becomes necessary to track these sorts of goals to get a real feel for goaltending performance.

It’s not hard to see that Rask has gotten much better at stopping these shots if we look to that chart. After allowing nine goals from B and C locations in the first five games, he’s allowed just a total of eight over the last 16 games. Over the last eight games, when his performance has really taken off, that number has fallen to just two.

Rask has occasionally been attacked over the years as a system goalie, the kind of player who thrives less because of his personal ability and more because the Bruins had such a good defence. Those charges aren’t really fair, and we’ve seen that as Boston’s defence has become less formidable over time.

When Rask is on his game, he’s rarely beaten by a stoppable shot. That’s what makes him an elite goalie, and that’s the level he’s back to playing at after a difficult run to start the year.

Statistics courtesy of NHL.comBehindtheNet.caStats.HockeyAnalysis.com and war-on-ice.com

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.