Tuukka Rask could return to NHL Bruins in a week or two

Tuukka Rask always planned to return to the NHL if his rehab went well, and never flirted with the idea of going to another team, with that being said, he's not trying to start a goalie controversy, he just wants to do his part and help out.

The Boston Bruins, holding the second wild card spot in the East, are on the verge of making 2021-22's second-biggest in-season addition to this point across the league.

Tuukka Rask, one of if not the best goalies in franchise history, signed a professional tryout contract with the AHL's Providence Bruins Thursday, clearing the way for his return to the NHL.

The original plan was that his NHL return could come as early as next week, after a short conditioning stint in the minors.

"We have a plan in place and it shouldn't be an issue," Rask said about eventually signing a pro deal with the Bruins. "I plan on playing tomorrow here and then we'll see about Sunday and move forward. Next week I should be with the guys."

Rask says he's fully recovered from off-season surgery that repaired a torn labrum in his hip, an injury that was making it difficult for him to move around effectively and efficiently in the crease. He has skated at the Bruins' practice facility a few times over the past weeks, joining the team as an emergency backup when Linus Ullmark was absent with an illness. The expectation always was that Rask could return this season, and now that appears close.

The AHL squad was scheduled to play Friday and Sunday at home against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, though COVID-19 protocols led to both being postponed and rescheduled to April 11 and 19, delaying Rask's return to game action. He said he only needed "one or two" games before he felt he'd be ready to come back to the Bruins.

"Physically I feel great," Rask told reporters Thursday. "It's been a while since game action, so tomorrow's game and we'll see what happens after that, but I'm confident it won't be an issue."

When Rask returns, the Bruins' crease will become a three-headed monster, though it won't be a headache to manage. Ullmark, an off-season UFA signing, and Jeremy Swayman, a 23-year-old who was Rask's backup last season, have come together to form a pretty strong duo. Swayman has played 15 games this season and Ullmark 14, posting fairly similar numbers. The Bruins have the 13th-best team save percentage to this point and the position has hardly been a weakness for them.

"We're top-10, we want to be top-5," Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said about his team's goalie situation Thursday. "Tuukka can only help us with that."

As stable as this year's tandem has been, Rask can elevate them. He said the injury affected him all of the 2020-21 season, so the last time he was healthy, in 2019-20, Rask led the league in goals saved above average. He's got the proven track record, winning pedigree and familiarity with the room.

The two questions, then, focus on roster room and cap considerations. The Bruins may not want to move ahead with three goalies on the pro roster, but with Swayman remaining waiver exempt, they have the option of sending him to the AHL to get starts.

And in terms of cap space, according to CapFriendly the Bruins have roughly $933,492 -- a little more if Swayman is shuffled. But when Rask signs his NHL contract, we shouldn't expect anything close to the $7 million AAV he worked with before.

In an August interview, Rask quipped that he might even return to the Bruins on a league minimum contract ... and free Bud Lights. The minimum NHL salary this season is $750,000.

"I had a good meeting with (GM Don) Sweeney after last year," Rask said. "Biggest point for me was if I feel great, I want to try to come back, and the only thing at this point is I want to help out. I'm not looking for a big contract like I've said before."

If Rask wanted to chase bigger dollars, he certainly could get them elsewhere. Surely the Edmonton Oilers would pay up for his services, and Cup hopefuls that may consider further goalie support in the trade market later this season -- Pittsburgh, Colorado, Minnesota to name a few -- may have gotten involved as well.

But after so much success over 14 years as a Bruin, the 34-year-old (turning 35 in March) had only one organization in mind. The Bruins have the same framework of a team that has been dominant for a decade, strong defensively with an elite top line, and though the roster is starting to fray at the edges, Rask talked about his desire to see this era to the end.

Zdeno Chara had already left and is now with the Islanders. Patrice Bergeron is in the final season of his contract with an uncertain future. And Brad Marchand, signed through 2024-25, turns 34 in May.

"In my head I didn't want to flirt with the opportunity to go anywhere else," Rask said. "A lot of it is a business, but for us players when we've had a team like the Bruins, a lot of us have grown up here and we feel that brotherhood. You don't want to leave guys on bad terms."

When Rask does sign his deal with the Bruins, we should expect it to be for just the remainder of this season. His long-term plans haven't been fully formed yet.

"I'm just trying to come back and get into game shape, and depending on how I feel, we'll look at that when the time comes," he said. "But I haven't really thought of that."

If Rask were to extend his career beyond this season with the Bruins, that's when the team may be forced into some sort of decision. Ullmark has three seasons left beyond this one on a deal paying $5 million against the cap though, theoretically, he could be the trade candidate if Rask sticks around. Swayman has a $925,000 cap hit for this season and next, after which he'll become an RFA.

Goalie controversy? Not today. Rask's return to the Bruins this season will catch no one by surprise.

"They've been so nice to me sharing the net the past couple of weeks," Rask said of his relationship with Ullmark and Swayman. "People from the outside are looking at controversy. There's always going to be controversy when you play in Boston, but I think so far sharing the net with Sway and Linus there in practice, we get along great. I just want to help out as much as I can."

With Rask's NHL return imminent, the biggest loser might be the Finnish Olympic team, which will no longer have the option of turning to him in Beijing next month.

And while the Bruins have depth scoring issues, they have to address if they are to be considered among the upper echelon of Cup contenders, getting back one of the best goalies in the team's history will be a huge help.

It's yet another good day in Boston sports.

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