Another Manny in Beantown

The past few seasons for the Bruins have proven to be somewhat disappointing for the Beantown faithful, and the tone was set the first game back from the year-long lockout. A sellout crowd, optimistic of a new era in Bruins hockey, watched their dreams of Boston being a Stanley Cup contender began to crash as the puck found its way into the back of the home team’s net just a few minutes into overtime against the dreaded Montreal Canadians.

The moment the red light flicked on, a hail of miniature Stanley Cups given out before game time rained down from the stands and onto the ice. Ever since then, the goaltending situation has been up in the air for Boston. 2004 Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft never quite seemed himself after his stellar first year between the pipes. Boston found temporary saviors in the likes of Tim Thomas and Hannu Toivonen, both having their ups and downs while trying to establish themselves as No. 1 goalies.

And now it seems that with the arrival of potential marquee goaltender Manny Fernandez, the coaching staff will have to decide whether to go with youth or wisdom for his backup.

The 32-year-old Fernandez looks to become the real deal between the pipes for Boston. The past few seasons have proven to the Bruins the fact that no goaltender is inhuman, but what they hope to gain in Fernandez is stable goaltending they can count on night in and night out.

Last season, Manny posted a 22-16-1 record, 2.55 goals against, and a .911 save percentage, but his season was cut short by a knee injury which left his job in the hands of Niklas Backstrom. Regardless of the injury and rumors of a sometimes ill-tempered disposition, the B’s look to Fernandez as their new saving grace, and hopefully one who can do it for the long run.

Now, Fernandez is certainly no Roberto Luongo or Martin Brodeur, but he isn’t a bad start. The sad truth is that the Bruins are a team that is not willing to put money into their goaltending situation, and if you look at some of the most recent teams to win the Stanley Cup, none have done it without a goaltender who was an MVP candidate.

Put simply, Fernandez gives Boston’s hockey fans good reason to hope that their team may finally return to the playoffs. It may be too soon to have visions of Lord Stanley’s Cup being hoisted in the TD Banknorth Garden, but it’s certainly not out of the question that the Bruins could reach the postseason in 2007-08.

With a squad that has the potential on paper, newfound life in goal with Fernandez, and new coach Claude Julien, the upcoming season looks better the time than ever to try and make something happen. One of the biggest doubts in Fernandez is his ability to play behind a team that hasn’t been known for its stellar defensive play. He is stable, as most goalies would be, when behind a strong defense. But Fernandez’s true value will be revealed when placed behind a team that is prone to lapses from time to time. This dilemma will hopefully be solved by Julien, who is known for focusing on defense first and moving forward from there.

Though the goaltending situation in Boston seems to be solved, (at least for the time being) there is still much left to be determined. The addition of Fernandez likely means the subtraction of either Thomas or Toivonen. Though the quality of their play has been frequently questioned, Thomas and Toivonen can’t be fully blamed for the last two disappointing campaigns. They have certainly been erratic at times, but the Bruins’ weakness on the blue line has more often than not left the goalies hung out to dry.

Tim Thomas was never meant to be a starting goalie, but somehow fell into the role after Andrew Raycroft began to falter. Surprisingly, Thomas was a fan favorite as captured the hearts of Boston fans with his seemingly Cinderella story.

While I was growing up in Vermont, my father and I would trek to UVM games and watch Thomas put on a showcase against some of the best in college hockey. They would put on charity skills competition events where Thomas would take breakaways from the likes of his teammates such at Martin St. Louis. Thomas would take ten or fifteen breakaways and turn away every one.

After a while Thomas would throw his stick to the side, which was followed by a thunderous roar from the crowd, and take on the players without his stick, still managing to turn more away then he let in. As he graduated, I never really heard anything about him until some ten years later, no doubt wearing the same helmet, when he emerged as another cult classic goaltender in Bruins history.

Though Thomas’ style isn’t the crisp butterfly that most goalies practice, he seemed to always give the B’s a fighting chance whether he was flying out to the hash marks for a diving poke check or on his back, arms and legs, waving frantically in the air.

Though this style of goaltending proves to be entertaining it also leaves a lot in question: How much can the B’s depend upon Thomas? Sure he has nights where he makes 45 saves in a win, but other nights he makes 14 in a loss. It may be his style or his age, but the Bruins need something much more stable in their net if they hope to get on the winning side of things.

Meanwhile, Toivonen came into the picture as a very highly touted prospect. Myself, I hadn’t heard of Toivonen till a friend of mine corrected me after I made a wisecrack about what I believed to be a 17-year-old girl backing up Andrew Raycroft. The longhaired Finn burst onto the scene in 2005-06, showing off his flexible and acrobatic 6’2 frame to the city of Boston.

Great potential was seen, as Bruins fans looked to Toivonen as a goalie they could see developing with the team and growing old with it. Unfortunately, an ankle injury sidelined Hannu, forcing him to go through rehab as well as a stint in Providence. Toivonen was never the same again, sometimes showing glimpses of talent, sometimes not playing to par. Making trips back and forth to the AHL affiliate in Rhode Island never seemed to help him, and the Bruins were yet again left looking into a crystal ball where goaltending was never in sight.

Enter the present situation. Three goalies, the number one slot presumably filled, and only one spot on the bench. Some may jump to the simple conclusion that the B’s should send Thomas packing, as he is the older of the two and is nearing the end of his prime.

But although he may be the older of the two, it seems that Thomas is more battle tested than Toivonen. Also, though Toivonen hasn’t produced the greatest numbers, he may be worth more on the open market than Thomas, as he presumably still has a decent amount of years left to play and could emerge as a bona fide NHL starter in the right situation. Indeed, Toivonen could bring in a capable player or two in return, while Thomas probably wouldn’t.

Though the present goaltending situation in Boston seems to be fixed, we must also look down the road into the future. If the Bruins do find a savior in Fernandez, that leaves Tuukka Rask in a spot to move into a backup role for Boston and smoothly transition into the starting role 2-3 years down the road.

However, if Fernandez flounders, the Bruins will be left in the all-too-familiar situation of not having a legitimate number one goaltender. And this would put too much pressure on Rask, too early. In recent years, there have been too many talented young goalies who have been pushed into starting roles too early. There are exceptions, such is the case of Marc-Andre Fleury, who after being thrown to the dogs in his first season in Pittsburgh has settled into the starter for the fast-rising Penguins. But in most cases, these goalies are battered and never the same after being prematurely thrust into the NHL. It would be better to let Rask slowly acclimate to the NHL game, rather than wasting his talents as a quick fix for the short-term.

Confidence is key for a young goaltender, as even the soundest goalies can fall victim to confidence issues. A bad goal can lead to two, and a bad game can easily turn into a losing streak. Especially for a young goaltender who feels they need to prove himself at a higher level, these lapses can be easy to fall victim to.

Playing behind a strong team can often help ease a goalie in the jump to another level. A strong unit around him lets a young goalie focus on his game and the routine saves that he needs to make. But playing in a program where more scoring chances are given up on a regular basis pressures a young goalie into worrying about the five or six big saves in a game he needs to make in order for their team to win. And thinking too much about anything but his own game can mean loss of crucial concentration.

In the fastest-paced game they will ever see, a second-long break in a rookie goalie’s concentration can be the difference between a reputation of being reliable and undependable.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea for Rask to play a few games in the NHL this season. This would give the Bruins organization and Rask himself a gauge of where he stands. It will give Rask an idea of what he needs to work more on and what he is capable of at the present time. Just because he has a decent game or two doesn’t mean Rask should be put into a starting role, as being the workhorse might put the young Finn into one of those bad streaks that could shatter his confidence for a long time to come. This, and playing behind a seasoned NHL goaltender like Fernandez, may be just what Rask needs to evolve into the goaltender the Bruins have been looking for.

As the B’s prepare for the upcoming season, it will be interesting to see if Manny will become just another Boston goaltending fad or a style that’s here to stay. As for Thomas and Toivonen, both will battle for their jobs come fall—if they’re still around—but that might not be enough, for the Bruins need to think critically about how they want their future to unfold.

And as for Rask, it seems as if the best plan would be for him to get his feet wet in Providence before diving into the NHL too early to play behind a Bruins team in transition. It is very possible that a situation may arise where Rask may be needed to come to Boston as a back-up due to injuries, and he might play a few games here and there, but giving him the starting role in 2007-08 would most definitely not be in the long-term best interests of the young netminder.

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