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Tuukka Rask’s bad start should worry Bruins

Rask used to be one of the NHL’s best goalies, but there’s little sign he’ll rebound so far this season.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Ottawa Senators at Boston Bruins Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Bruins pulled goaltender Tuukka Rask after just two periods in a 6-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday. It’s the second consecutive game in which he’s struggled against Colorado, and his third straight poor start to open the 2017-18 season. Through three contests, he has a save percentage of .870.

It’s not that long ago that Rask was one of the best netminders in hockey. From 2011-15, he put up a .927 save percentage, tied with Cory Schneider for best in the league among goalies to start at least 150 games over that time frame. He was the backup goalie on a Stanley Cup winner in 2011, and a Vezina Trophy winner by 2014.

That’s not the Tuukka Rask that the Bruins have gotten over the past three games, or the past three years, however. During that time, Rask has regressed from exceptional to something much closer to league average. This season, he’s off to a start that doesn’t indicate that trend will end anytime soon.

Since the start of the 2015-16 season, Rask’s save percentage has been .914 over 132 games (128 starts). That’s identical to the league average and a far cry from the .927 he had put up during his prime years. As a result, his goals allowed average rose from 2.13 per game to 2.43 per game.

Nowhere is the decline more apparent than in Rask’s save percentages at even strength. He’s remained an effective goalie in limited special teams minutes, but it’s been a steady decline in his ability to stop pucks when both sides have the same number of guys on the ice.

Here are those save percentages for the past five seasons, via Hockey-Reference:

2013-14: .943
2014-15: .930
2015-16: .925
2016-17: .919
2017-18: .885

In 2013-14, Rask led the NHL in even strength save percentage among all goalies to play at least 1,000 minutes, per Corsica Hockey. Last season, he was 32nd among 50 goalies to qualify. This season, among goalies with at least 100 minutes played already, he’s 19th out of 21.

The negative trend is also apparent in GSAA, or goals saved above average, which estimates a goalie’s performance above or below expectations based on shot volume and danger (location, type, etc.). In that statistic, there’s a clear delineation between Rask’s prime years and when he dipped below average. Here are those numbers, provided by Corsica Hockey.

Now, at least for this season, sample size is crucial to consider here. Any goaltender can struggle over a three-game stretch without it being indicative of long-term decline. Matt Murray has struggled badly like Rask this season, yet many still consider him the top young goalie in hockey.

But the concern with Rask is that this continues a pattern that’s occurred over several seasons now. The last time he was well above-average was 2013-14. Since then, he’s been below-average to average until the start of this season, when he’s been outright terrible.

The problem for Boston is that there’s not much it can do at this point. Rask is signed through the 2020-21 season at a $7 million cap hit. His no-movement clause turned into a modified no-trade clause this season, per Cap Friendly, so he can block trades to up to 23 teams, but would the Bruins be ready to trade him while still in win-now mode? And even if they wanted to, would one of the eight teams on Rask’s approval list be willing to offer a compelling deal to take on a goalie with such a high cap hit?

This is good example of why goaltenders can be so difficult to project over the long run. A few years ago, Rask would’ve seemed like as good a bet as any goalie in the league. He’s only 30 years old. The Bruins’ eight-year, $56 million deal for him made a ton of sense at the time. But it’s a challenging, demanding position where few players can maintain an elite level of play. Even someone as good as Rask can take a step back before anyone expected it, the same way we see late bloomers Corey Crawford emerge in their mid-20s. The position is, in a word, weird.

After a couple of solid, if not good, years allowing Bruins fans to keep thinking, “Well, Rask will get it back soon,” it’s fair to start wondering whether that’ll ever happen. He’s been underwhelming for two straight seasons, arguably three if you buy GSAA, and now he’s struggling to open another one.

Boston recently lost its potential long-term replacement, Malcolm Subban, to waivers, so it’s clear Rask is still The Man in Boston for now. But time is running out for him to recapture the old glory. That’s bad news for a team that otherwise looks good with veterans like Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand and up-and-comers like David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy. If Rask can’t figure it out, he’ll be a question for the Bruins all year.