Under Pressure: Tuukka Rask

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Boston Bruins.

Even by the fickle standards goalies usually endure, it’s been easy to take Tuukka Rask for granted.

Few teams would be able to move on from a two-time Vezina winner, as the Boston Bruins did with Tim Thomas, but Rask allowed the B’s to do exactly that. From 2009-10 through 2014-15, Rask went 130-80-34, pitching 25 shutouts. Only Cory Schneider‘s .927 save percentage edged Rask’s .926 during that span, and Rask appeared in 57 more games (winning 38 more times).

The seamless passing of the torch from Thomas to Rask spoiled Bruins fans, and now that the Finnish netminder’s numbers have slipped from elite to steady-but-sometimes-unspectacular, the heat’s risen in recent years.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions ]

Chalk it up to the nature of a goaltending position that provides little room for error, or Rask’s $7 million cap hit, but Boston’s occasional struggles sometimes fall on his shoulders.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty chronicled the ups and downs of Rask’s 2017-18 season, at one point calling for Anton Khudobin to shoulder a bigger share of the starts, and worries bubbled up when the Bruins were trading goals during their exciting series against the Maple Leafs.

While age and/or injuries would have to be a concern, Jaroslav Halak‘s best moments trump those of Khudobin, so there’s a chance that Rask will need to battle for his starts more than he has since Thomas left town.

Going further, Haggerty posited in mid-July that it “shouldn’t be out of the question” for the Bruins to try to trade Rask with Halak in tow:

Nobody is saying to ship Rask simply for the sake of doing it, and clearly the Bruins would need to find themselves a young goalie they could groom as the eventual No. 1 guy to go along with the older, declining Halak. But the signing of Halak officially opened the door for the Bruins to at least toy with the idea of moving Rask in a good hockey trade to a team desperate for goaltending help (Carolina, the Islanders and the Flyers immediately come to mind), and that might not be such a bad thing for the Black and Gold.

The pros and cons of the Bruins trading Rask is a debate for another day, yet it shines a spotlight on how tensions could rise if the 31-year-old goalie struggles, as he did to begin last season.

Naturally, every goalie – even uncannily reliable ones such as Henrik Lundqvist – tends to hit some slumps here and there. Rask finished 34-14-5 with a solid .917 save percentage, so it’s not as though the bottom is falling out on his numbers.

Heightened expectations rank as another factor in putting more pressure on Rask in 2018-19, though.

The Bruins, at times, looked like a wrecking ball this past season. They even seemed deadly during spans when key players such as Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand dealt with injuries.

If those dominant players continue to play at or near their usual levels next season (the aging curve is at least hovering on the periphery there, what with Bergeron already at age 33 and Marchand sneakily at 30), then some might believe that Rask would be letting them down during lower moments. Conversely, fans may expect Rask to carry the team if the Bruins hit the wall.

On the bright side, these pressures aren’t particularly new to Rask. His current contract kicked in during the 2013-14 season, and he’s been the go-to guy for quite some time.

Familiarity certainly helps, but the bottom line is that pressure is pressure, and Rask is set to face a healthy portion of it.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.