The Boston Bruins wrapped up a successful western Canada road trip over the weekend. While they lost to a rejuvenated Vancouver Canucks, they beat both the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, who currently sit second and third in the Pacific Division. They were two important wins against top teams, something that hasn’t happened very often so far this season.
Bruins’ goaltender Linus Ullmark is coming off one of his best games of the season against the Flames. He had 40 saves and a save percentage (SV%) of .952. After a rough start to 2021-22, he’s turned it on for his past seven starts.
Ullmark’s Play Couldn’t Come at a Better Time
For a team that has struggled in the first quarter of the season, the terrific goaltending as of late (Jeremy Swayman has also been very good in his recent starts) is a much-needed relief. For the past decade, the Bruins’ strength in net has covered up a lot of the flaws with the rest of the roster. October was pretty rough in terms of goaltending as both goalies had their issues and it exposed a lot of the issues with the skaters.
There are multiple reasons why there were early goaltending issues. Ullmark was brand new to the team, which usually brings an adjustment period and Swayman is a rookie who came in with less than 20 games of experience. There is also the utter absurdity of what the Bruins schedule has been, particularly at the start of the season. It’s hard to get momentum going when there are long stretches in the schedule without games. The team played their first game five days after the start of the season and then had another four-day break before their second game just to name a few instances.
Regardless, the Bruins lost three out of their seven games in October by a margin of three goals. Fans can say what they want about Tuukka Rask, but it was rare for him to lose a game by more than a goal or two.
Speaking of Rask, he very well may have played a part in the catalyst for Ullmark’s recent incredible run. Last week, while he was out with a non-Covid related illness, Rask stepped in at practice, which gained quite a lot of attention around Boston. In Ullmark’s next two starts, against Calgary and Edmonton who both have some tremendous scorers, he stopped 81 of 85 shots. Of course, Ullmark was doing well before Rask’s practice appearance. In his last five games, he is 4-1-0 with a .941 SV%. Not bad, right?
Ullmark’s run as of late is coming at the perfect time. In the next two weeks, they’ll face the Vegas Golden Knights, the red hot Carolina Hurricanes who shut them out in their last matchup, and a Colorado Avalanche that is still dangerous even with their recent run of injuries. A winning schedule for the rest of the month would go a long run to securing the Bruins comfortably in a playoff position. Currently, they’re fighting with the Detroit Red Wings for fourth in the Atlantic, though they have played four less games than them.
The Bruins’ Looming Goalie Conundrum
Ullmark’s recent run of excellent play, paired with his four-year, $20 million contract is certainly making things interesting for the Bruins in net. There were quite a few who were surprised when the contract was signed in July. While he had shown flashes of promise on a rough Buffalo Sabres team, with injuries, he had never been able to show the true extent of his talent. Specifically, the four years drew the most concern as it is a fair amount of term to commit to someone who had never had more than 34 starts in a season.
Ullmark’s play as of late has silenced some of the doubt that lingered around him to start the season, but now it poses a new conundrum for Bruins’ front office: where do we go from here? Swayman has been excellent in net and deserves to be in the NHL. Rask, your franchise leader in wins and save percentage, is on his way to being a hundred percent healthy again and wants to sign in Boston. Not only that, he is willing to sign for cheap.
Whether you like it or not, the return of Rask to the Bruins is all but inevitable. I think most would be shocked if he signed elsewhere and it isn’t hard to believe that the team wants him to return. He is only 34 and is in the NHL’s top five for career SV%. A month ago, it seemed like a much easier decision as neither Ullmark or Swayman had established themselves in net. Head coach Bruce Cassidy himself described the tandem as just “OK.” Since then, they have a 3-1-2 record with a combined .950 SV%.
The easy solution may be to send rookie Swayman back down to the American Hockey League (AHL). But, that feels hard to do when he has proven himself to be NHL ready and there are real concerns it may hurt his development.
This is where Ullmark’s great play as of late may have additional benefits for the team off the ice: his marketability is on the rise. While it may seem crazy to trade a guy less than a season into a four-year deal, it may be the best option for the Bruins. There are always teams that need a goalie and if Rask truly signs for cheap, they may even be able to retain some salary to sweeten the pot. Or they can package him and Jake DeBrusk together and get an asset they desperately need in return.
Looking Ahead for the Bruins
An Ullmark trade would be a huge decision and a hard one to pull off. Luckily, the Bruins don’t need to be in a huge rush. Presuming Rask sticks with a January return, they have the rest of December to continue to assess the tandem of Swayman and Ullmark. Are they the goaltenders who started the season or are they the ones who have been in net for the last seven games?
When Rask is ready to return, they can start him in Providence on a conditioning stint to get a better feel for where he is at before bringing him up to Boston. If they carry three goaltenders on their roster for a little while, it isn’t the end of the world. It would give them a chance to gauge the market before March’s trade deadline and make a decision: trade Ullmark, send Swayman to Providence or carry three goaltenders through the end of the season.
Either way, if the Bruins can maintain a great presence in net no matter who it is, things will be looking up for the team that has had a mediocre start to 2021-22.
I’m Hannah Garfield, a graduate of Elon University with degrees in Film and Media Analytics. Currently, I’m pursuing my MFA in Screenwriting at Boston University. I’m a lifelong, passionate Boston sports fan and love all things Bruins.