The Goalie Guild

Tuukka Rask and the Benefit of Injuries

Since Tim Thomas made the personal decision to erase his net presence in Boston this season, Tuukka Rask has finally been handed the reins.

His patience has paid off, his time to shine is upon the horizon, and I’m very confident that he will excel.

Photo Provided by: Hockey Broad Photography

There are many reasons why I’m so optimistic about Rask’s upcoming season. Not only is he one of the world’s most technically proficient 25-year-old goaltenders, but he has two authentic traits that will lend a hand to his success; adaptability and resiliency.

For a highly-touted prospect of Rask’s caliber, the pressure to win rises interdependently with expectations. Regardless, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’ll transition from being an “elite backup” to a “workhorse starter” smoothly. He’s not a kid anymore, he has a healthy dose of NHL experience, and he has witnessed both the drama of the Stanley Cup playoffs and the “highs and lows” of an 82-game season.

Because of this, I think Rask will find a way to adapt to whatever situation is thrown his way, whether he’s been through it before or not.

Along with pure skill, adaptability, and more opportunity lending a hand to Rask’s success this season, I also think his competitive edge will boost his consistency. If he does hit a rough spot, his feisty drive and determination should curtail any extended lulls. That’s where the trait of resiliency comes into play — I don’t expect to see more than a few three-or-four-game losing streaks, at the most.

Another reason why I think we’ll see a resilient Rask stems from the presence of Anton Khudobin, a Top-20 prospect that has also patiently paid his dues. Khudobin is primed to establish his NHL presence this season, and I stick by my assessment that he could adequately challenge Rask by playing in as many as 28-30 games as a rookie.

No matter how the workload gets split up, all things considered (the Thomas drama), Boston’s goaltending is still in pretty good shape. They drafted Malcolm Subban and signed Swedish prospect Niklas Svedberg, so their depth is as solid as it has ever been.

But beyond everything I’ve said above, there’s one really intricate element that has Rask primed to excel this season…and it’s not obvious.

It’s his injury.

Yes, it is my contention that Rask’s groin/ab injury from late last season will actually make him a better goaltender, and below I’ll explain why.

WHY RASK’S INJURY CAN HELP HIM

I think a highly athletic goaltender like Rask, one who is akin to relying more on his reflexes and flexibility, will actually develop better overall balance to his game because a groin injury will help him slow things down.

Like many naturally gifted reflex-based goalies, Rask has a tendency to over-amplify his movements. In some instances, he ends up in less-than-perfect positioning on rebound chances, or in scramble situations.

For him, there is such a thing as being too urgent in the crease. So when it comes to his recoveries, his post-save mechanics, or tracking pucks and staying square in frenzied situations, less is often more. When I look back at my scouting reports over the years, and when I dissect video, I come to the conclusion that sometimes he works way harder than is really necessary.

A lot of  this stems from the fact that Rask has an extremely high level of natural instincts embedded deep in his game. His ability to read and react in whatever manner necessary to make the save gives him the “dazzling netminder” tag. His game is rich in that reflex-based intuition, which makes him a natural-born battler. He’s known for being extremely tough to beat down low, and some of his best saves come from making last-second reactions on re-directed or tipped shots.

To be honest, I see this sort of thing in a lot of raw-skilled Finnish goalies. They’re unbelievable “energy conductors” at first, but as their game evolves over time, they learn to better control those different bursts of energy. It happened with Pekka Rinne, it happened with Kari Lehtonen, and I believe it will happen with Rask over the next few years.

Photo Provided by: Hockey Broad Photography

But now that Rask is in a different place (both mentally and physically) in his career, adjustments will be made, whether he means to or not.

This season, success is not so much about Rask’s technical proficiency or the reliance on his stellar instincts. Instead, it’s the ability to economize his movements, improve durability, conserve energy, and maintain a patient, calm, composed demeanor in the crease.

To do this, Rask has to display a better balance between his highly athletic style, and a more conservative, positionally-based style. He can stand to make a few more blocking saves on plays in tight, and he can focus on saving those reflexes for when he needs them most. Eventually, as Rask gets more comfortable this season, I suspect his game will likely display more control, more consistency, and inevitably, better results.

Furthermore, Rask’s game will change for the better due to the inevitable rise in his workload. When you’re a backup, you put everything you have out on the ice because you never know when you might play next. You treat every game as if it were your last, and you go “all out” in the hopes of earning more starts. That naturally leads to over-amplification, excessive movement, and a tendency to appear more urgent than necessary.

As a starter, however, you know you’re the man, and that shifting mindset changes your game. You’re more relaxed, less urgent, and focused more on things like proper nutrition, muscle recovery, and the economy of movement. Things change when you know you have to prepare to play your best 60 times a season…and still be ready for the playoffs.

Ultimately, Rask “slowing down” his game due in part to his injury is tied to an intimate “mind-body relationship” that can happen at a subconscious level. Even if we can’t see it or directly pinpoint it, trust me when I say it’s there.

I don’t say this because I think Rask will be any weaker or slower than before his injury. In fact, it’s likely the opposite; he’ll be faster and stronger. But deep inside his mind, the natural adjustment of his maturing physiology will allow him to not only subconsciously move with more control and less urgency, but the way in which his mind reads and processes plays will also help his body be a little more composed, and a little less tense.

Without broaching the psychology of the matter, this sort of thing is a natural progression of a goaltender’s evolution.

More like a soft sponge and less like a rubber wall, many scouts and goalie coaches will agree when I say that an effortless Rask is the best type of Tuukka. The more he plays and the more he focuses on staying injury-free, the more his mind will subconsciously lead his body to slow things down.

PRESENTING A COMPARABLE

As you read this section, it’s important to understand that when I discuss comparables, there’s still an infinite amount of differences that exist. And even though I’m using one here, comparables are fairly fleeting; you can never truly align two goalies’ experiences together.

So who is this comparable, you ask? Why, Marc-Andre Fleury, of course.

You can compare their styles and find plenty of similarities. Both are highly athletic with gifted instincts. Their reflexes are elite, their skating skills are elite, their hands are very active, and they were literally born to be NHL goaltenders. From their international experience to their development path, you’ll find more comparables as well.

For this case study, however, I want you to look at a specific moment in Fleury’s history with the Penguins.

In the 2007-08 season, Fleury started off very slowly. He went 4-4-0 with a 3.50 goals-against average and .892 save percentage in October, and then went 3-4-1 in November with a 2.71 GAA and .910 SV%. On December 6, he suffered a serious high-ankle sprain in the first few minutes of a game against Calgary, and he didn’t return until late-February.

Photo Provided by: Tom Turk - Piratical Photography

Upon his return, Fleury went 9-1-1 in March with a 1.44 GAA and .944 SV%, including two shutouts. In April, he stopped 47-of-50 shots in two games. In the playoffs, his game continued to surge, and he led the Penguins all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals by going 14-6 with a 1.97 GAA, a .933 SV%, and three shutouts.

The following season, his game continued to improve, and he displayed the mental maturity and durability needed to defeat the Red Wings. That picturesque save in the dying seconds on Nicklas Lidstrom was a snapshot of his evolution; he was athletic, but he wasn’t flailing, and he used his upper body to make a nice save in one of the most intense, pressure-filled moment anyone could possibly ever imagine.

Before the high-ankle sprain, Fleury had played in a total of 158 NHL regular-season games, plus another 66 in the AHL.

Back then, despite his tremendous raw talent, Fleury suffered from being too loud and too tense in the crease. He made saves look tougher than they needed to be, and he over-exerted himself. It was only after he suffered the injury that he was almost forced to start slowing things down, as his changing biomechanics played a legit role in his improved positioning, rebound control, and overall efficiency.

Overall, he processed the game with a better understanding of the “less is more” mentality, and his refined mechanics allowed him to become one of the truly elite NHL goaltenders.

Before the groin/ab injury, Rask had played in a total of 102 NHL regular-season games, and another 102 AHL games. So Fleury played in 224 pro games, while Rask played in 204 pro games.

Obviously both goalies have traveled very different paths and have evolved very differently, but in terms of pro games played, they were both close to the same number when suffering their injuries.

Who knows, maybe Rask will start off slowly this season, but around the 20-game mark, turn on the jets and never look back.

A PRO GOALIE’S SIMILAR EXPERIENCE

Over the past six months, I have gotten to know Rapid City Rush goaltender Tim Boron pretty well. Turns out, he also experienced a situation where a set of injuries actually helped him play a more patient and controlled game.

After graduating from St. Cloud State in 2006, Boron signed with the Central Hockey League’s Colorado Eagles. Boron landed in Loveland and helped them win the Ray Miron President’s Trophy title in 2007. (I stopped covering the Eagles after I graduated college in 2004, so I missed his run by two seasons.)

During the 2008-09 season with the Wichita Thunder, Boron realized he was suffering from a debilitating hip injury.

“It was an injury that developed over time from continuously doing butterflies and putting pressure on the hip joints,” Boron said. “I had what are called CAM impingements, and I also had torn labrums in both hips as well. The impingements are basically irregular bone spurs that I had on my femurs and acetabulums, the sockets.”

Boron stopped playing in January of 2009 and had surgery on his left hip in March of 2009, then the right hip in April of 2009. It took until January of 2010 before he was ready to hit the ice again. When he did, he went 9-2-0 to finish the 2010-11 season.

“When I first came back, I couldn’t necessarily do some of the stuff I could do before,” Boron reminisced. “During that whole stretch, I felt like my game was somewhat transforming from a very athletic style to a more patient one. I was putting more focus on the technical part of my game, but I didn’t really do it on purpose.”

Boron had a full summer to further recover and re-strengthen his hips, and now he says he’s playing the best hockey of his life. Last season with Rapid City, Boron went 24-11-2 with a 2.44 GAA, a .925 SV%, and three shutouts.

Like I expect to see from Rask, Boron also benefited from more playing time. His 41 appearances was the most ever as a college or pro goaltender.

Photo Provided by: Tim Boron

Boron has his own unique style, but he considered himself a highly athletic goaltender before the surgeries. After he fully rehabbed, however, his muscle patterns transformed him into a more controlled and consistent goaltender.

“I think it was more of a natural progression due to what my body was telling me,” Boron said. “I never mentally made a point to work on the patience or technique, it just slowly happened as I relied on it more.”

This is where it becomes really difficult to explain, because to be quite honest, not even a goalie can really explain it. These sort of things are just part of the mind-body psychology and kinesthesia of a goaltender. It’s stuff that fascinates me on a daily basis, and why I firmly believe goaltending analysis is a lot like alchemy.

“I could really feel the improved control aspect of my game,” Boron said. “I felt like my transition was real when my parents came and watched me play one night. They hadn’t seen me play in a while, but after the game, even they mentioned that my game looked different. They didn’t know what it was in goalie terms, but they both agreed that my game had matured.”

Obviously a serious hip injury like Tim’s is quite different from Rask’s ab/groin injury or Fleury’s high ankle sprain, but I think the concept of injuries slowing down an over-athletic goalie is real. Furthermore, for goalies that are highly athletic, I think they inevitably and eventually realize they simply have to inject some type of economy to their game if they want to carry a heavy workload successfully.

“I still tend to lean more towards a ‘Thomas-Quick’ type of style,” Boron said, “but it was great to experience that season of maturity and work on the other aspects of my game.”

Speaking of Thomas, how much did his game evolve and improve after recovering from his own hip surgery? In fact, I think you can look at a number of goalies that suffered lower body injuries, and then saw their game mature and refine as a result of that mind-body shift.

Another example was recently presented to me by Predators assistant goalie coach Ben Vanderklok. He mentioned seeing a similar evolutionary change in Phoenix Coyotes prospect Mark Visentin following a groin injury early last season.

And we all know how that turned out, as Visentin had an unreal second-half run with Niagara.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Even though I’m confident in my contention about Rask’s upcoming season, at the end of the day, I still have no clue how this situation will actually play out. It could go either way, which underlies everything I’ve come to learn about goaltending. The sheer nature of the position leads us down a spiraling, never-ending hall of mirrors.

You never know what you might see next, and nothing is quite what it seems.

Just because Fleury’s and Boron’s and Visentin’s games slowed down after lower-body injuries does not mean Rask’s game is destined to slow down as well. But the odds are good, and I think they’re even better than good.

Furthermore, when it comes  to evaluating Rask’s game, I honestly think the next evolutionary step in his game is to slow things down. Every goalie learns over time that they can’t rely on sheer natural ability alone. There has to be some economy of movement in there, otherwise it becomes a huge grind and you burn out way before you want to.

Either way, whether it’s partially due to the injury, or mainly due to the fact he’s continually evolving, I don’t feel like I’m going out on any kind of limb when I say Rask is going to have a break-out season in Boston.

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