BOSTON -- Maybe if goaltender Tuukka Rask wasn’t forced to play a career-high 70 games last season, the Bruins could have reached the Stanley Cup playoffs for an eighth consecutive time.
Despite the heavy load, Rask still performed at a high level, posting a 34-21-13 record along with a 2.30 goals-against average. Fellow netminder Niklas Svedberg wasn’t trusted enough to handle the normal workload as a backup, which required coach Claude Julien to use his starter more.
Now that training camp has begun for the 2015-2016 season, Bruins first-year general manager Don Sweeney understands that keeping Rask fresh is crucial for the team’s success.
Sweeney said he's pleased with the organization’s depth at goaltender as camp opens, and that there will be plenty of competition for the backup job. Seven goaltenders are at training camp, including Rask, Jonas Gustavsson (in camp on a tryout basis), Malcolm Subban, Jeremy Smith, Zane McIntyre, Matthew Ginn and Dan Vladar.
It’s an unusual number of goalies to have in camp, but Sweeney explained it’s because the roster will be split up into three separate on-ice groups to start, which will call for six goaltenders. Plus, having one extra serves as insurance in case of an injury. It’s also a good opportunity for the younger netminders -- Ginn and Vladar -- to experience main camp.
“We’re in a position where we feel very comfortable with Tuukka going out and now we have to find the ideal number of games for him,” Sweeney said. “It’ll be less than what he played last year, and the guys that are in line for that backup position are extremely excited about the opportunity in front of them and I fully expect one, if not more than one, to step forward and grab a hold of that and make it a very competitive camp.”
A good number of games for a starter is anywhere between 55 and 65 per season, but there’s no magic number because each team’s situation is different. Rask never complained about the workload last season, but admitted there were stretches when he was tired.
Heading into this season, Rask said he's ready for anything.
"It doesn’t matter,” he said. “If it’s going to be 70 or more, or less, it’s OK. Every season is so different. Last year we were in a position that I had to play a lot -- there was no other option. But if we have the luxury of resting me, or some other guys, I’m sure we’re going to do that. It’s tough to put a number on how many games you want to play.”
Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby led the league in games played with 73 last season. Los Angeles Kings netminder Jonathan Quick followed with 72, while Rask finished third with 70. New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider was fourth with 69.
“There could be stretches in there when you do feel some fatigue,” Schneider told ESPN.com. “I know a lot was made when I started the first 20 games of the season, and that was probably the most tired I felt all year -- that first 20 games getting into it. I don’t know if you’re finding your legs, your rhythm, or what, but there were nights in the midst of that where I felt exhausted.”
After that early stretch, Schneider admitted that he felt better. He felt his endurance increased.
“The more I played, the better I felt, and I’ve heard a lot of guys say that, too. I don’t know what the magic number is, but there were stretches, I found, where you feel a little more tired than others,” Schneider said. “You’ve just got to fight your way through it, or get a well-timed day off. Sometimes circumstances dictate that they need you to play every single night down the stretch.”
That was the case with Rask.
Unfortunately, the Bruins didn’t help him much in the final weeks of the season, and they were eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the regular season.
During the 2013-2014 season, Rask posted a 36-15-6 record, a 2.04 GAA and a .930 SP in 58 games. As a result of his success, Rask won his first Vezina Trophy and the Bruins earned a postseason berth. They ended up losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the second round.
This season, the Bruins will attempt to find a balance.
Gustavsson, 30, has six seasons of NHL experience split between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings. He battled a shoulder injury last season and was limited to only seven games with the Red Wings. He’s also dealt with hip and groin issues in the past.
After the Bruins conducted their off-ice conditioning tests and physicals on Thursday, Gustavsson said he’s healthy and ready to make the most of his opportunity during camp.
“You’ve got to aim high,” he said. “I’m not just here to be a guy who’s watching the other guys. I want to play here. ... I want to show everyone that I can still play and I’m healthy.”
Since Subban, a former first-rounder, is entering his third season as a pro with the Bruins, most believed he would earn the backup role in Boston. But Sweeney likes having a healthy competition for that position and the GM also likes Gustavsson’s resume.
“You can’t trade anything for NHL experience,” Sweeney said. “Obviously, those other guys are chomping at the bit to get that.”
Subban posted a 16-13-4 record, along with a 2.44 GAA, in 35 games with the Providence Bruins of the AHL last season, and he believes he’s ready to make the jump
“Yeah, I’d like to think so,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve got to have a good camp and make the best of my opportunities. I definitely feel better conditioning-wise and felt good during the summer with my skating, so hopefully I can bring it into camp.”
Subban has never lacked in confidence and it should be on display during camp.
“As you get older you get more mature,” he said. “You start to get a little more poised in the net, more comfortable, so I feel like I’ve made the next step in my development.”
Smith had a solid ‘14-15 season in Providence too. He posted a 22-11-5 record, with a 2.05 GAA, in 39 games for the P-Bruins.
The Bruins drafted McIntyre in the sixth round (No. 165 overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and he impressed during his three-year collegiate career at the University of North Dakota. He turned pro after posting a 29-10-3 record, and a 2.05 GAA, for North Dakota last season. Even though he has zero pro experience, he’s still playing for that backup role in Boston.
“Every day I’m just pushing to be my best,” he said. “I’m trying to excel and trying to get better each and every day. With that comes a level of understanding about just showing them what you have and what your potential can be. I’m enjoying the process and pushing to be my best every day.”
Rask needs to be the backbone of this team if the Bruins want to become a Stanley Cup contender again, and that’s why the backup role in Boston will be so important this season.