Bruins

Tuukka Rask isn’t slowing down anytime soon – and the numbers back it up

(Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tuukka Rask has plenty on his mind these days. 

Beyond the turmoil and stress that comes from the ongoing COVID-19 stoppage and subsequent stoppage of all organized pro sports, the Rask household grew a bit bigger recently — with his wife Jasmiina giving birth to their third daughter, Livia, three weeks ago. 

Add in the looming pressure on the horizon if the Bruins are given the chance to see this season through and contend for the Stanley Cup, and Boston’s long-time netminder has plenty to keep him occupied. 

Retirement, however, is not something that Rask is dwelling on. 

“I mean, I haven't thought about retirement at all,” Rask said on a Zoom call with media on Monday. “You know, it's been so kind of weird times, now, that I've kind of put full focus on my family at this time and just try to enjoy that.”

Rask, the B’s all-time leader in games (535) and wins (290) for a netminder, is approaching a potential crossroads in short order — as the 33-year-old netminder’s eight-year, $56-million contract will expire at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season. 

Much like his longtime teammate in David Krejci, much has been said about what the future holds for Rask when his latest contract runs its course — with Rask himself telling the Boston Globe that he could opt to spend more time with his family and hang up his gear in 2021. 

However, Rask reversed course when speaking with the media on Monday, noting that he hasn’t set aside an age or set of goals as a determinant for when he finally decides to walk away from the game. For now, the competitive fire hasn’t dimmed at all for the netminder. 

I've never really thought of that, really, the age number that I would play until,” Rask said. “I think a lot of it has to do with how much you want to keep playing, is your body healthy, and do you have that passion for the game still. ... But whenever that drive kind of slows down, then you get to rethink it and revisit that, ‘Hey, is this really something I want to do?’”

“And so far I still have that passion of winning and playing and that drives me — that winning drives me. So I haven't put a number into it of what age it might be, but we'll see. Maybe it's 36, 37, maybe it's 42. You never know. Zee (Zdeno Chara) is still playing and he's getting older, so maybe I'll be the goalie who plays until I’m 45. Maybe, maybe not.”

Alright, 45 might not be feasible for the B's netminder — but it's pretty evident that Rask believes he still has a lot left in the tank when it comes to extending his career beyond the current parameters of his contract with Boston. A closer look at the underlying numbers in Rask's game validates those sentiments.

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Chalk it up to the arrival of Jaroslav Halak in July of 2018, the subsequent reduced workload, Rask's own comfort level or a myriad of other factors. Whatever the case may be, Rask has managed to orchestrate a renaissance over his own over the last two seasons. After coming one game short of securing the Conn Smythe Trophy during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs (.934 save percentage and two shutouts over 24 playoff outings), Rask has managed to be even better in 2019-20.

Among goalies that have logged at least 2,000 minutes of ice time (all strengths) this season, Rask ranks:

1st in save percentage (.929)
1st in goals saved above average (22.56)
2nd in high-danger save percentage (.849)

The case could be made that Rask is the favorite to capture the second Vezina Trophy of his career this season, although Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck will likely have some say in the matter.

Rask would certainly not call it a disadvantage, but having a stout D corps headlined by the likes of  Chara, Brandon Carlo and others does hurt his candidacy a bit, at least when compared with Hellebuyck. 

There's no question that Boston's ability to play a structured game in front of Rask has aided the netminder tremendously, especially as youngsters like Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, and Matt Grzelcyk continue to round out their game. When Rask has been between the pipes this season, Boston's defense has generated an expected goals against per 60 minutes rate of 2.4779 — one of the top rates in the league.

That often means that Rask isn't nearly under as much pressure as other netminders. The same can't be said for Hellebuyck — who has been saddled with a much more porous defense to work with up in Winnipeg. But even with the Jets generating 2.8804 expected goals against per 60 minutes with Hellebuyck in net (the sixth-highest rate for goalies), Winnipeg's top goalie has been superb under despite heavy shot volume and scoring chances — ranking second among all netminders in goals saved above expectation per 60 minutes (GSAX/60). Behind, Rask of course.

(Rask and Hellebuyck are both circled off in red below.)

Still, even if Rask has benefited from having a strong team in front of him, that's not to discount the production that Rask has put forth, especially during the expected sequences throughout every game in which his club is put on the ropes and relinquish high-danger scoring chances. After all, Rask might be in the quadrant above designated as "easy work," but he's far and away the leader of that pack in terms of GSAX/60 — including a sizable jump over established netminders such as Jordan Binnington, Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

What has allowed Rask's game to take another leap forward over the last year-plus has been his improvement in stymying high-quality scoring chances when they do manage to manifest in Boston's own zone. Despite his consistent production over the years, Rask's save percentage on high-danger shots has often undercut many strong outings from the veteran goalie. Granted, it's really, REALLY hard to consistently turn aside chances generated right on your doorstep or other Grade-A bids — but Rask's growth in this area has been very noticeable.

From a stretch between 2015 and 2018 — three seasons in total — Rask generated an .814 save percentage on high-danger shots. Among all goalies during those three seasons that logged at least 3,000 minutes of ice time (57 in total), Rask's .814 HDSV% ranked 40th overall. Not great.

But Rask has made sizable gains since then, starting in the 2019 playoffs in which his HDSV% spiked at .874. In 2019-20, Rask sits second overall among regular goalies with an .849 save percentage, with Binnington's .867 standing as the lone man in front of him.

Rask's improved ability at turning aside quality chances stands as perhaps the primary reason why he's separated himself from many of his peers when it comes to goals saved above expectation this season at 14.19. (In other words, based on the quality of shots and chances against, he's saved over 14 goals above what was expected of an average goalie).

Put it all together, and you have a pretty elite netminder that's managed to settle into one of the best stretches of his career at age 33. Add in the fact that Halak has re-upped for another season and a manageable workload is once again secured for another season, and it's reasonable to expect that Rask can sustain this production for another year —if not longer, especially as young Boston defense continues to get better and better.

Of course, even with all the impressive underlying numbers in Rask's game, he accepts that plenty of warranted praise likely won't arrive until he wins the final game of the season and leads Boston back to a Stanley Cup title. Fair or not, that is the hand that Rask has been dealt — and, much like talk of retirement, he isn't losing sleep over it.

"I think I've said it a thousand times previously — it comes with the territory in a town like this," Rask said. "People love their sports — doesn't matter if it's basketball, baseball, hockey or football. There's always the fans out there who want to see you win and succeed, but they have the right to criticize you. And I've accepted the fact that my job is what it is. ... So I haven't put too much thought into that while I've been playing. It's just something that, like I said, comes with the territory and I just try to do my job as good as I can every night and gave us a chance to win. And then what comes with that comes.

"Maybe in the future after I retire and look back, you know, you kind of appreciate yourself more and see what you did. And obviously this city is known to win championships and your success is measured by winning championships. I've gotten in the finals with the team twice as a playing goalie, didn't win, but I think it's still a great accomplishment to reach that point to go in the finals. Obviously it would be nice to be known as a champion from those years, but it didn't happen and we just have to live with that. I've played a good career so far and hopefully there's some more years left and even maybe a championship in the future and hopefully I can improve my playing as well."

Stats and graphs via Natural Stat Trick and Sean Tierney