Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Rask: Tuukka Blanks Oilers, Reminds Leafs Nation of What Could Have Been

The fact that the red-hot Edmonton Oilers managed only 19 shots on Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask in Boston's 2-0 shutout win on Halloween at the TD Garden shouldn't detract from the fact that the 22-year-old played an excellent game. But what Rask's win, his second of the season, represents to the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans is the price of making hasty and bad decisions.

Rask was the 21st overall pick of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by Toronto, and the following year, he won top goalie honors at the World Under-20 Championship Tournament in Vancouver. However, Toronto and then-GM John Ferguson Jr. were entranced with the WJC's overall MVP, Team Canada goalie Justin Pogge, who stole the show on home ice after being a third-round pick for the Leafs in '04. Although the fact that Toronto had two outstanding young netminders in the system should have been reason enough for the team to protect their seeming embarrassment of riches, Ferguson instead pulled the trigger on a curious trade six months after Rask shined on the world stage.

At the 2006 draft (held in in, ironically enough, Vancouver) Toronto gave Rask to Boston even-up for one-time NHL Rookie of the Year, Andrew Raycroft, who had struggled mightily in the first full season after the lockout for Boston. On the surface, it appeared that Toronto was getting a young, in-his-prime netminder who had showed considerable promise just two years prior en route to the 2003-04 Calder Trophy, while Rask seemed a long way off from ever reaching the NHL.

Unfortunately, Toronto fans know that Raycroft's tenure was ultimately a failure. Yes, he set a franchise record for wins in a single season (37), but he proved to be a mediocre talent, unsuited for the requirements of a premium No. 1, let alone the top goalie in the hockey pressure cooker that is Toronto. His departure left Leafs fans with nothing to show for the trade, while having to look longingly at Rask and how his star has risen since the deal was made in June '06.

* Rask played one outstanding year with Ilves Tampere of the Finland top pro league, posting a .928 save percentage on a team that didn't score a whole lot. He got them past one round of the playoffs before falling to league powerhouse Jokerit, but joined the Providence Bruins in the spring of '07 to begin the acclimation process after signing his entry level contract with Boston.

* His first pro season showed flashes of the hype which preceded him. He made his NHL debut against Toronto when Manny Fernandez reinjured his knee, winning the game and rubbing the first salt into what is going to be some deep wounds over the years. Although he didn't distinguish himself in any of his other three NHL games that year, he did manage to post 27 AHL victories in 45 games with Providence.

* In his second full North American season in 2008-09, Rask took off, winning 33 games and leading Providence to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell to the eventual Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears. He started just one NHL game, but it was a memorable one, blanking the New York Rangers for his first NHL whitewash. Going into the 2009-10 season, there seemed little doubt that Rask was ready to be Tim Thomas' backup.

As Toronto continues to get mediocre goaltending, whether it be from Vesa Toskala or Jonas Gustavsson, their fans are reminded of what could have been every time they see Rask in action for the Bruins. As he is behind the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Thomas, he'll probably get about 30-35 starts this season. The Leafs could sure use a player of his caliber, especially since their club doesn't lack for gritty, try-hard types. However, without the pure talent of other NHL clubs, they must have better goaltending than what they've gotten.

And the guy Toronto chose to keep while sending Rask to Beantown? Pogge was an utter disaster last season for the Leafs, going 1-4-1 with an .844 save percentage in seven games. Only the most sycophantic and delusional Leafs boosters would argue that the team made the right call on Pogge, or that he has any business being an upper echelon NHL netminder. The team was so unimpressed with his performance and long-term upside that they traded him to the Anaheim Ducks, where he began the season with the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL. Ouch.

So, lift your glasses to Toronto, B's fans. Their loss is your gain. Their anguish, your salvation. Few would argue that if Rask were shouldering the load for them right now, they'd likely have a few more wins.

Given how critical the position is, and how Toronto GM Brian Burke staked his professional reputation by giving away important picks for a player who's good at filling the net with pucks and not keeping them out, Boston fans should give thanks that Rask wears black and gold and not blue and white these days.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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