Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rubbing salt in the wounds encore

I know that if there are still any Toronto Maple Leafs fans out there (who read this blog at least), this will come off as being downright mean and cruel, but I'm doing it anyway.

Interrogative: What do you think of that goalie, Tuukka Rask, eh?

Snicker, snicker.

As the 23-year-old Finn continues to build his legend in outplaying Ryan Miller (1.80 GAA, .940 save percentage) to help the Boston Bruins to a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, Toronto fans can't help but wonder what might have been had Rask not been gifted to Boston for the since-departed Andrew Raycroft a little less than four years ago.

The most deluded of Leafs supporters will console themselves with the belief that Johan Gustavsson is the better player and they're better off with "the Monster" than Rask, but the fact of the matter is-- they drafted Rask, and had they kept him, might have had the Finn and the Swede as opposed to the big-money contract of Jean-Sebastien Giguere that Brian Burke was forced to bring on board when Vesa Toskala crossed the point of no return with his horrid play. Gustavsson and Giguere couldn't get Toronto out of 29th place, and with so much money invested in the defense and goaltending positions, that offense will continue to be a source of contention for Toronto in 2010-11.

To think that then-GM John Ferguson Jr. believed that Justin Pogge (last seen playing for the Albany River Rats of the AHL) was the guy to keep in Toronto over Rask seems so ludicrous, so laughable, but it's a thought that Bruins fans will gladly take to the bank.

Rask is the rare bird in the pro goaltending fraternity: he's not only got the size and athleticism to be a top-tier player, but he's calm, unflappable and refuses to let the pressure get to him. He's an ideal foil for the media, too. Ask him a question and he'll usually shrug and give an answer that underscores his strong confidence in himself, team and ability to maintain an even keel.

When queried about the pressure he faced in Game 3, his first home start in a come-from-behind 2-1 victory, he responded that the situation itself was "...just like any other playoff game, I'd say."

If you talk to scouts who saw Rask coming up through the amateur ranks, they'll tell you that none of what he's doing is all that surprising. He played for an offense-challenged team in Ilves Tampere, much like he does now. When the Lynx won games, it was usually because they scored two or three goals tops, but Rask only allowed one or none.

Rask brought that same template from the Finnish SM-Liiga with him into the stretch run when Boston was clinging to its playoff hopes and coach Claude Julien decided to let the rookie determine his team's fate over Tim Thomas, the game, but mercurial Vezina Trophy goalie.

The Bruins still must win one more game before they advance. The series against Buffalo is not over, but with Boston in the driver's seat, Rask has the opportunity to slam the door on his division rival. His team is playing with a confidence borne of a group of guys who believe completely and unquestionably in their man between the pipes, a club who knows that even if he gets behind the 8-ball early, he won't fall apart, and as the final minutes wind down, he'll keep them in it.

Pogge imploded in Toronto. It is a bit ironic that his death knell as a Leaf essentially came in December of 2008, when Boston's David Krejci torched him for his first (and to date only) NHL hat trick. Pogge was traded to Anaheim a few weeks later and isn't even in the NHL these days. He's not done by any stretch, but he's not done a thing to show he has any real upside as a future starter at the highest level.

On the other hand, Rask's trajectory is vertical...like a rocket soaring into the upper stratosphere. He's bringing the kind of hope and true belief in net for the Bruins that hasn't truly been seen in these parts since Andy Moog and Rejean Lemelin manned the crease two decades ago.

Toronto ditched the wrong guy, that much is obvious. And, they'll hand over the rights to Tyler Seguin or Taylor Hall to Boston in June, a price they would not have had to pay if Rask had been wearing the blue and white for them this season. Oh, and they're on the hook for that high second-rounder this year and another first next. Toronto had better hope that they get much better goaltending next year, or we'll be doing the same kind of song and dance 365 days from now.

The Bruins have taken their lumps with trades in recent years, with the Joe Thornton exchange having done the most longterm damage to the fans' psyche. But with Rask, the B's and their fans know they have the upper hand, and with him locked in for two more years at the paltry sum of $1.25 million per, the good news is only getting better.

In June 2006, the Leafs tried to take a shortcut by adding a former rookie of the year who was coming off a lousy year, hoping that he'd regain his form in the most stifling hockey environment of Toronto. Leafs Nation found out the hard way that hope is not a method; Rask has developed precisely the way he was projected to, while Pogge serves as contrasting proof that it doesn't always happen the way scouts think or even hope it will.

Toronto's loss is Boston's gain. Now, Rask can continue to add to his growing fame and take his place as one of the essential core ingredients of this Bruins team now and in the future.

3 comments:

  1. Hey Kirk,

    Another question from the ol' boiler room...

    I am thrilled with what Rask has done so far this season and even more in the playoffs. I realize that he's playing against the Buffalo skaters and not the Buffalo goalie, but it says a lot that he has stepped up and has at worst matched Miller, one of the game's best, save for save. A few of Rask's goals against in this series have been ones he didn't have much of a chance on, like the two that were deflected in off of Wideman and Begin.

    Having said all of that, there's still a little skeptical voice in the back of my head that thinks "Hannu Toivonen and Andrew Raycroft were both pretty damed good in their rookie year, too, and look what happened to them."

    I think it's fair to say that Rask has done more this year than either Raycroft or Toivonen did during their rookie years, but looking at numbers alone was not going to predict the Raycroft and Toivonen flameouts.

    What, besides his production, do you see in Rask that separates him from his predecessors?

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  2. Michael-

    You don't need me to answer that question...

    Just look at Rask's athleticism, poise, technique and economy of motion. For me, it's no contest when you compare him to his predecessors.

    Overall, I think he's more athletic and technically sound than Raycroft. He's more composed and mentally tough than Toivonen.

    Neither of those players demonstrated a modicum of the grace under fire with the high stakes that Rask has: he's essentially been in the playoffs since mid-March, when every game was a pressure situation to get the Bruins into the postseason.

    Raycroft was on a very good team in 03-04 and had benefited (IMO) from unrestricted equipment size. Toivonen, who was a solid athlete and butterfly goalie didn't have Rask's experience and composure.

    So, there it is. In my view, anyway. Rask is the real deal. He's been a proven starter at every level and is now showing the same excellence at the NHL level. I don't think it's a fluke.

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