Despite his age and lack of experience, Tuukka Rask may very well be one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. But due to a number of factors out of his control, it will likely be a couple more years before he finally gets the chance to prove his worth.
A season removed from their first Stanley Cup victory in more than three decades, the Boston Bruins continue to rely heavily on the services of veteran goaltender Tim Thomas. The reigning Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophy winner has unquestionably been the Bruins' most valuable player since they ascended into the league's elite several years ago, and while the team as a whole has benefited from his presence, Rask certainly hasn't.
It's been difficult for Claude Julien to justify taking too many starts away from his trustworthy veteran, and he's made the correct call by keeping Thomas as his go-to guy. Still, Rask continues to impress despite limited opportunities, posting a 2.11 GAA and .928 SV% in 21 games thus far in 2011-12.
Unless age finally catches up with Thomas, he's going to be the Bruins' starting goalie as long as they're paying him. If that remains the case, Rask won't move up the depth chart until the 2013-14 season. That's a tough pill to swallow for the young Fin, who started through most of 2009-10 when Thomas had an off-year.
But there's nothing Rask can do about his role with Boston other than continue to work hard, and he understands that.
"Lately maybe I've been frustrated and showed it and it's obviously a confidence thing with goalies and I'm frustrated with how I played [the] last few games, but overall I am fine," Rask said. "As you get older and gain years under your belt, you realize it's all about work ethic and gaining confidence in practice and then take it to the game and that's been the case this season."
Rask has given the B's every reason to believe he has the skills necessary to become a franchise cornerstone. While he's only played a small amount in the past few years, he carried the load in 2009-10, finishing the regular season allowing less than two goals per game and leading his team to the second round of the playoffs.
"He's more mature and he's had a good year," Julien said. "He's played more this year at this point than he did last year and he also knows that he wants to stay sharp and stays out there and does the extra work in practice and all the things that he has to do. We're certainly a group of players and coaches that still have a lot of confidence when he's on top of his game as you saw earlier in the year.
"He's got as good as numbers as Tim does."
While Rask's contract ends at the conclusion of this season, he remains a restricted free agent. The Bruins will be capable of matching any offer other teams throw at him, and every indication points towards Boston retaining the 24-year-old.
"There's no rush," he said of contract negotiations. "I'm just trying to play the season out and play well, so no rush. Obviously I want to stay here and they know that and hopefully they want to keep me. It's not a conflict by any means and we're just waiting to see what happens."
Thomas' contract extends through the end of the 2013-14 campaign, and unless he experiences dropoff in performance (which is possible given his age), he'll remain the No. 1 goalie for Boston as long as he's a member of the organization.
But Thomas will be pushing 40 once his deal expires, and re-signing him in a starting capacity makes little sense, especially with another capable player in tow.
It's inevitable that Rask will eventually get his chance to shine, albeit several years later than he would like. And when he finally does take over, there's every reason to believe he can become one of the best goalies in the game.
But until then, all he can do is wait.