One of the greatest bets in NHL history has been cashed in.
Last summer, Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask believed he could become an elite goaltender in the League in his second full season as the Bruins' go-to netminder after Tim Thomas' decision to take the year off.
Rask, a restricted free agent, signed a one-year contract with Boston for $3.5 million. A sensational regular season followed by a spectacular postseason and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final have paid off with Rask now moving into the top spot on the Bruins' salary chart.
Rask on Wednesday signed an eight-year contract worth $7 million per season. He will take up the most salary-cap space of any Bruins player in 2013-14 (just ahead of Zdeno Chara, who is at a shade less than $7 million) and for the foreseeable future (the Bruins are close on a contract extension for center Patrice Bergeron beginning in 2014-15).
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"Well, you know what, I actually thought of that today," Rask said Thursday. "I was reading the Finnish newspapers and they said I was making a lot of money compared to the other goalies or other players. But you know, I don't really look at it that way. Maybe it's just a challenge. You try to play as hard as you can and then you have to make a deal and you try to make it work for both as a player and as an organization. For me, it doesn't really matter if I'm making $4 million or $7 million or $10 million, you're just still trying to be worth your money and trying to prove yourself every night. So I don't really look at that if I'm making more or less than the guy sitting next to me. It doesn't really affect my mindset, but obviously people are going to expect great things from me, and as I do from myself too, so it doesn't really change my mindset or my game at all."
Rask emerged as a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL during the 2009-10 season. As a rookie, he led the League in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931). That season ended in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a historic loss to the Philadelphia Flyers after the Bruins held a 3-0 series lead.
The next season, Thomas won back the No. 1 job and held it through the Bruins' Stanley Cup championship in 2011 and the next season. Last summer, Thomas decided to take some time off and Rask was again elevated to the Bruins' prime puck-stopper.
In 2012-13, Rask went 19-10-5 with a 2.00 GAA and .929 save percentage. He bettered his numbers in the playoffs with a 1.88 GAA and a .940 save percentage. The Bruins reached Game 6 of the Cup Final, where they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks.
That Rask was able to back his decision to take a one-year contract with a season worthy of a monstrous long-term deal didn't surprise Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli.
"I was impressed, obviously. Tuukka's always been -- you heard him say about being patient learning his craft with high expectations -- he's been very consistent in his approach to his career, and that's impressed me a lot," Chiarelli said. "He's been very confident in what he sets out to do and he's accomplished it. So to see it unfold before me, and I think I was asked a question during the Stanley Cup run, 'Is it going to be really hard to sign Tuukka now?' And I said, 'In fact, it's going to be easier.' And I know that sounds weird, but to see what he did when he said he was going to do it was impressive. And he's done that all the way along. So he deserves this contract; he's a high-character kid and he's only going to get better."
Rask joined the Bruins' organization in a trade for Andrew Raycroft in 2006 after the Toronto Maple Leafs selected Rask in the first round (No. 21) of the NHL Draft the year before. Rask spent one more season in the Finnish Elite League before arriving in North America for the 2007-08 season. The Bruins kept Rask with their American Hockey League affiliate in Providence for two seasons, giving him five games of NHL action in those years.
Rask didn't always agree with the Bruins' decision to let him blossom in the minors before eventually making him a full-time NHL employee. But in retrospect it worked out for the goaltender and the team.
"I mean looking back, it's been a lot of fun, for sure," Rask said. "It hasn't always been easy. I mean, I always have been really passionate and I set really high goals for myself. So coming in and having really good camps the first two years and then not making the team and then going to Providence, being patient and learning my game in North America -- it hasn't been easy. But then again, we've had such great teams every single year I've played in Providence or in Boston; I've made a lot of friends. So it's been a lot of fun. I think as serious as it is in in the NHL, it has to be fun, too, and I've really been happy about being with organization throughout these years and really had great experiences. But then again, it hasn't always been easy. But who says it should be?"
Fulfilling the potential of a contract that will last into the next decade won't be easy for Rask either. He said he never considered testing the free-agent market some year down the road and always wanted to be with the Bruins for the better part of his career. No-movement and no-trade clauses should keep him in black-and-gold for the bulk of his new deal.
He'll continue to try to improve and learn, taking a large lesson from the 2012-13 season.
"People always talk about pressure. I don't know. It was such a different and weird season that you don't really have time to think anything; you just go out there and play every other day pretty much," Rask said. "And then it's almost a second nature. I guess that's something you're always trying to accomplish, even in the longer season, you just try to not think too much and just go out there and play. And maybe that was something I learned in the shortened season is you just go out there and play and try not to overthink things."