Previewing the 2011 Bruins Goaltenders

As last season’s playoffs proved, a hockey team’s success hinges on the quality of its goalie. A good goalie can bail out a poor defense, kill penalties single-handedly and frustrate even the fastest, craftiest shooters. A bad goalie, on the other hand, can take out a team so early in the game that his teammates won’t know what hit them (see 2011 Stanley Cup, Game 6).

Since the position is so crucial, and with the Bruins’ training camp just underway, let’s look at the Bruins’ goaltenders for the upcoming season:

Tim Thomas

Bruins fans could not ask for a better starting goaltender this season than Tim Thomas, who in 2010-11 won the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award, the Vezina Trophy, the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tim Thomas had the kind of 2010-11 season that goaltenders dream about. He set an NHL single-season record with a .938 save percentage (for which he won the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award) that, combined with a 35-11-9 record and 2.00 GAA, won him his second Vezina Trophy (best goaltender in the league). In the playoffs, he performed even better, posting a .940 save percentage and a 1.98 GAA en route to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoffs MVP) and the Stanley Cup. No goalie had ever before won those four trophies in the same season.

Thomas’ greatest strength is his self-awareness. There are may different ways to play the position, and Thomas has figured out his own strengths and weaknesses enough that he can maximize his effectiveness in goal. His reaction time isn’t quite as fast as younger goalies’ (he’s 37), so instead he comes out of the crease a bit earlier and uses his bulk (he weighs 201 pounds) to cut off shooting angles. When a player gets too close, Thomas comes out and attacks the shooter, not the puck. The Canucks’ Henrik Sedin got a taste of that strategy in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup.

Thomas’s working-class roots and everyman demeanor make him the kind of Boston athlete fans identify with and love. He has unshakable confidence in his abilities to guard the net, and when he has to, he has proven he can carry the Bruins to victory.

It’s unlikely Thomas will repeat the accomplishments of last season, considering how many factors are beyond his control. More shots on goal will likely lower his save percentage, while better offensive play in the playoffs might cost him the Conn Smythe. Nonetheless, Bruins fans can’t ask for anyone better to start in goal next season. There is no one better than Thomas.

Tuukka Rask

Tuukka Rask had an excellent rookie year in 2009, winning 22 of the 45 games he played (39 starts) while posting a 1.97 GAA. In the playoffs, however, Rask was noticeably less effective. His GAA jumped to 2.67 and his save percentage dropped nearly 20 points. In the four consecutive losses of the Bruins’ historic 2009 collapse against the Flyers, Rask allowed a combined 15 goals.

Rask has yet to fully recover from that collapse, and he went 11-14-2, posted a .918 save percentage and again allowed 2.67 goals per game last season. His 2010-11 season was poor enough that there was never a debate over who the Bruins should start in goal.

The Bruins don’t need much out of Rask, but Thomas won’t start all 82 games: In his last four seasons, he’s never started more than 55 (about two-thirds of a season). After starting all 25 of the Bruins’ playoff games, Thomas will be that much more in need of rest during the regular season. Rask has to step up this year, or the Bruins may turn to…

Anton Khubodin

The Bruins traded for Anton Khubodin from the Minnesota Wild back in February, then assigned him to the Providence Bruins. In 16 games with Providence last season, Khubodin went 9-4-1 with a .913 save percentage and a 2.40 GAA.

It’s unlikely Khubodin will make the NHL squad out of the gate this season, instead returning to Providence and the AHL, the league Khubodin has played in for most of his U.S. career. Khubodin has only played in six NHL games ever, going 4-1 in four starts with a 1.39 GAA and a .955 save percentage in limited action (just 134 shots against).

Khubodin gives the Bruins another option at backup, but little else. He doesn’t have the experience to be the primary goalie for an NHL team. If Rask can’t regain his 2009 form, however, the Bruins may give Khubodin a spot-start here and there. Doing so will slowly give Khubodin more experience, let him learn watching one of the best goalies in the league, and possibly raise his trade value.

If Thomas gets hurt, Rask will be the replacement. But if Rask can’t get the job done, Khubodin might get a shot.