The Bruins paid Tuukka Rask $56 million to be the $3.5 million Tuukka Rask, as all they could have hoped for were eight repeat performances of his 2013 season. So far, they’re getting the same guy, and one who doesn’t seem changed by his newfound wealth.
It will obviously be years before anyone knows whether the Bruins’ money was well-spent, but here’s what we do know: Rask, who signed his eight-year deal after being one of the Bruins’ best players last season, has played more through the first 17 games of the season than any Bruins goaltender in Claude Julien’s tenure in Boston and leads the NHL in both save percentage and shutouts.
That makes for pretty good early returns on the Bruins’ investment, but the ultimate takeaway is it seems that Rask has been unfazed by all of the new money and any pressure that may come with it.
“It doesn’t change him,” Shawn Thornton said Wednesday. “I've had conversations with him about it actually asking, 'Do you ever think about it? It's 56 miiiiillion dollars.' It doesn't. It's not him. It's not him.
“He doesn't change one bit. He's still going to lunch at the same places, still lives in the same place, still has the same stuff. He deserves it and he got it, but it doesn't define him. He's more about playing the game and enjoying it on the ice, not so much off.”
Playing 15 of the first games of the season, Rask has yet to turn in a bad performance. The Bruins have felt their way through the early going with new players and therefore some sloppier play in their own zone, and Rask has been the team’s backbone, ready to stop a shot off a turnover at a moment’s notice.
“You still have a job to do,” Rask said, nonchalantly. “You're a goalie. You still have to stop the puck and get your teams as many wins as possible. It doesn't matter what kind of contract you have; you still have to do the same job.
“People obviously expect you to perform at a high level every night if you're a No. 1 goalie, no matter how much money you're making. It's a great challenge for you as a goalie. You want to be worth every penny and give your team a chance to win game.”
With contract status – whether it’s a player trying to earn a new one or hoping to live up to one they may have signed – things can get inside a player’s head. Think David Krejci before he signed his extension in 2011 and certainly Milan Lucic, whose frustrations last season were magnified by the fact that he was set to be the highest-paid forward on the team and couldn’t find the back of the net.
Yet Rask, despite being known for some epic moments of rage (you can have the milk crates; for my money people really shouldn’t forget how funny it was when he fell down slamming his stick against the boards last March after a shootout loss to the Canadiens), is generally cool as a cucumber. He’s popular with teammates, never snippy with the media and pretty much goes against most of the “weird goalie” stereotypes.
So given his rather understated demeanor, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when the Jacobs backed up the proverbial Brink’s truck, Rask didn’t feel he had anything extra to prove.
“I just find some people are more confident in their skin than others, and they don't feel the need to justify anything; they just go out and play and play their best,” Claude Julien said. “You get that in a guy like Bergy, Zee, those kind of guys. They just go out there and play.”
That’s about as high praise as one person could give another regarding his or her character. Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron are among the most “professional” professional athletes this city has seen thanks to their work ethic and understanding of the task at hand, among other things.
Whatever Rask’s doing, it’s working. After turning in a 2.00 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in the regular season and playing at a 1.88/.940 clip in a postseason that saw him allow just two goals against the Penguins, Rask hasn’t seen a dip in his numbers.
Entering Wednesday night, Rask leads the NHL with a .948 save percentage and two shutouts (both against a really offensively strong Lightning team), while his 1.52 GAA is second in the NHL.
Yes, his job is a lot easier than most other NHL goaltenders. Even with the Bruins taking more risks on the back end with the emergence of offensive threats Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton, Rask still holds the amazing job of “guy who plays behind Zdeno Chara.” With half the ice taken away for a little less than half the game, Rask might not always have to be incredible in net. But just to be safe, he has been.
Rask shrugs off talks about his own numbers and status, but Thornton hopes that his postseason and performance so far this season will get him some overdue attention. Rask was seen as something of a snub when he wasn’t one of the three finalists for the Vezina last season despite being top-three in save percentage and tied for the league lead with five shutouts.
Thornton hopes that Rask’s performance this season, which he said has been “unbelievable,” will get him some of the accolades that he hasn’t gotten in the past.
“I hope so. Not that he needs it, but he deserves it,” Thornton said. “Going all the way back to four years ago when he was our starter, his numbers were the best in the league and nobody even talked about him that year. He's a special talent and it's nice that people are finally starting to take note.”
Whether it’s his contract or performance that brings him more attention, Rask isn’t going to worry about whether the spotlight’s on him or somebody else.
“I don't think of it that way,” he said. “If people talk about it, they talk about it. I don't care. I just want to help the team win games. Our main focus with the Bruins is winning as many games as possible and being successful as a team. Individual stuff comes with it sometimes, and sometimes it doesn't.”
The Bruins showed Rask the money. So far, he’s shown them more of the same.