For as much as the 2021 season should represent a clean slate for every individual on the Bruins roster, such hasn't been the case for Tuukka Rask.
Since deciding to leave the Toronto bubble back in August ahead of Game 3 of Boston's playoff series against the Hurricanes, Rask has been a conduit of criticism — a development that's far from surprising, given that, well, it's par for the course with the usual flak that the B's netminder has received over the years.
Despite setting the record straight when speaking with The Boston Herald’s Steve Conroy back in October about the reason for his departure, Rask once again revisited his decision to return home from Toronto when speaking with the media on Wednesday at Warrior Ice Arena — marking his first video conference since Game 2 of that series against the Canes back on August 13.
“It was a tough decision to leave, but then again it wasn’t because I knew it was more important for me to be home at that time, so that was easy to live with,” Rask said via Zoom. “But also, on the other hand, knowing you can’t be there, you should be there playing hockey, so it’s tough to watch the games — you’re kind of caught in this middle, your brain is kind of spinning at that point knowing you’re in the right place at home, but then again you should be there. So it was tough for a few weeks, but it helped — I was talking to Jaro (Halak) a lot, I was talking to a lot of guys that gave their support, they knew what was going on. There was that."
Given the circumstances Rask shared on Wednesday of the reasoning behind his decision to leave Toronto, it shouldn't have come as a surprise at all that hockey fell to the wayside for the B's netminder.
"(A family emergency) was the reason I left,” Rask said. “I got a phone call the night before — everything happened so quickly I think that (Don Sweeney) got caught by surprise too. I got a phone call the night before that our daughter really wasn’t doing so well at that point, they had to call an ambulance and everything. So obviously at that point my mind is spinning, I was thinking, ‘I need to get out of here.’ So the next morning I informed (Sweeney) and we had a brief talk and then I just left.”
As for any hesitations about returning to camp after last year's results, Rask shut down any talk of turmoil in Boston's locker room.
“No issues coming in here,” Rask said. “We’ve been in touch throughout the summer and had discussions about whatever in life with teammates, and there’s no issues coming back.”
For as much as Rask's name was linked in trade talks during the offseason, Boston will be in desperate need of their No. 1 goalie's services in the coming months, especially with a D corps in front of him without two foundational pieces in Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug.
"We're going to need good goaltending," Bruce Cassidy said of Rask. "We've talked a little bit of the change on defense where we're going to give some younger players an opportunity. So typically, when that happens, you need goaltending to help you out when you go through your hiccups early on, you need good team structure — we have that, we've got good centermen to help down low. We have that. Hopefully we pair these guys up with good partners that have been in the league and like I said, the goaltending can help in a lot areas that way. So I anticipate nothing but good play for Tuukka. I guess we'll find out next week when we get to New Jersey."
For Rask, the priority for now is staying the moment, especially given that he is set to become an unrestricted free agent during this upcoming offseason. One thing is for certain, though — Rask doesn't want to be between the pipes for another team come 2022.
“I think what the situation is now, everything is kind of upside down with the hockey world,” Rask said of his contract status. "I’m sure (Sweeney) has a lot on his plate right now, my contract situation is probably not on the top of his list at the moment. I’m comfortable with where we are right now, I just want to go out there and start the season off right and get on a good groove and play good hockey personally and as a team.
“And then if the contract talks happen during the season then so be it, if they don’t, we’ll just wait it out and see what happens. But my main focus is just to get the season started off right and then worry about the future after that. I’ve said that before I have no intention of playing anywhere else but the Bruins, so if I’m good enough to play one, two, three more years then so be it, and if not then so be it. So that’s where my head is at.”
Miller taking Zboril under his wing
Already saddled with the label of being one of those fateful first-round selections in the 2015 NHL Draft, Jakub Zboril entered Bruins camp under even more pressure — with the 23-year-old defenseman potentially in line to log some of the minutes up for grabs with both Chara and Krug playing elsewhere.
No pressure, kid.
Granted, after a bit of a so-so start to his on-ice sessions at Warrior on Monday and Tuesday, Zboril impressed during Day 3 of camp — especially during 5v5 drills, carrying the puck through the neutral zone with ease on one sequence while remaining active along the blue line and extending an O-zone shift with Patrice Bergeron's line pressuring him at the point.
While he may not be as bombastic as, say, a Connor Clifton in terms of jumping up into the play and bulldozing players in open ice, it's easy to see why Jay Leach and the Providence Bruins thought Zboril was the club's top defenseman down the stretch last spring — as the Czech product can move pucks in a hurry and seems rather poised with the puck. In some ways, he's a bit similar to a guard in football, in that if you regularly notice him on the game film, it's not often a good thing.
Now, if Zboril can continue that sound play at 16-18 minutes a night, it would seem as though the youngster has as good a shot as any to secure a starting role on this blue line. And if he does lock up that spot, there stands a good chance that Kevan Miller could be skating alongside him on Boston's third pairing.
Given that Miller has excelled in years past when it comes to taking young defensemen under his wing, Cassidy believes sticking Zboril in a similar spot should be beneficial for all parties — with Miller's competitive streak and attention to detail serving as a way to iron out some of the lax habits usually found in younger skaters.
"Kevan is a very intense player, he approaches practice workouts and games with a very determined focus," Cassidy said. "So some of that can rub off. The younger players sometimes will rely on just their ability to play the game, they don't prepare as well. They don't have a routine that helps them get through maybe times when the game isn't going well for them individually. So that's what can rub off — was the preparation, the focus, the effort in practice. Specifically, Kevin will —with (Matt Grzelcyk) for example, years ago and now, hopefully with Jakub, — he'll go to him and say, 'We're not getting scored on today on these D-zone coverage drills or the line drills, we're going to shut them down and this is going to be our goal today'.
"So it's things like that, that get you more focused for each drill, because in practice, if something goes wrong in a drill, you're not really held accountable, except to your teammates and yourself in terms of to be better to, make the practice better, but there's no end result. There's no game, there's no two points on the line. So you have to find ways to challenge yourself in practice to get better in those situations.
"And that's what I think Kevan can do for Jakub and what he did for Grizz. And it's normal. I think you come out of college, you come out of junior, you're one of the better players typically if you're going on to a pro career, so you've gotten away with it sometimes, some loose habits. Not everybody, but you know, it's perfectly normal. So that's what we want to take out of their game and build in the good details and habits so that when the puck drops, you're ready to go and you've kind of been through it in your head and mind. So, that's the ask of our veteran guys when they're paired with the young guy, whether it's on a forward line or a D pair."
Bruins unveil new helmet stickers
With fans not expected to return to TD Garden for quite some time, the Bruins — and the other 30 teams across the NHL — are going to have to get creative in order to recoup some revenue during the 2021 NHL season.
One best practice has been using the free real estate on players' helmets for ad space, with Boston following a league-wide trend by adding a TD Bank sticker to its buckets in 2021. Listen, you gotta do what you gotta do to make up for this lost revenue in a year like this, and so long as Boston's sweaters aren't looking like this in a couple of years, I'm all for it.
*Sigh* - I just wish it was Dunkin' instead.
Here were the lines from today’s skate:
GROUP A LINES
Marchand – Bergeron – Studnicka
Bjork – Kuraly – Wagner
Frederic/Filipe – Lindholm – Senyshyn
Lauzon – McAvoy
Zboril – Miller
Ahcan – Kampfer
GROUP B LINES
DeBrusk – Krejci – Kase
Ritchie – Coyle – Smith
Carey/Hughes – McKegg – Lantosi
Grzelcyk – Carlo
Vaakanainen – Wolff
Moore – Clifton