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Sweeney: 'Rask Healthy, Ready to Go, and Committed to Our Team'

Netminder signed one-year, $1 million deal to return to Bruins on Tuesday

by Eric Russo @erusso22 / BostonBruins.com

BostonBruins.com - Tuukka Rask did not make his desires much of a secret.

From the time the 2020-21 campaign ended, and throughout his extended recovery from offseason hip surgery, the Bruins' all-time winningest goalie made it clear: if he was healthy coming out of his rehab, he wanted to return to the NHL - and, once again, pull the Spoked-B over his chest.

"In some ways, Tuukka's too honest," said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. "He's just a guy that wants to go back and play hockey. He committed to the rehab part of it and the process, which is not an easy thing. He could have just faded off.

"He's had a hell of a career - he leads in wins, he's got a lot of things on his resume - but he wanted to play, wanted to see how he would feel with having had the surgery and his health being in better accord."

Some six months after the surgery, Rask, who has been practicing with the Bruins for several weeks, is ready to resume his career and he'll be doing it in Black & Gold. The 34-year-old signed a one-year, $1 million contract on Tuesday afternoon and will return to the only NHL club he has known on Wednesday when he backs up Linus Ullmark for the Bruins' tilt against the rival Montreal Canadiens at TD Garden.

Rask was originally slated to play at least one rehab game with the Providence Bruins over the weekend, but both of the P-Bruins' games against Lehigh Valley were postponed due to COVID-19 concerns with the Phantoms. His first start with Boston is yet to be determined.

"I think we had an understanding going through the process, if he was healthy, that he was gonna try and play," said Sweeney. "Credit goes to Tuukka and [agent] Markus Lehto to committing to the outline of what we felt we had to have happen salary-wise with the contract. Tuukka was committed to that, just wanting to be part of a group that he's spent his entire career with.

"As an organization, it was always about his health, first and foremost, his commitment to wanting to play and watching him go through the rehab and all the stages and steps…but he's ready to go from a health standpoint and committed to our team."

Sweeney added that he was appreciative of Rask's willingness to work with the Bruins in fitting his contract into a tight salary cap situation.

"I applauded Tuukka and Markus," said Sweeney. "They're not blind to the salary cap challenges we all face. I appreciate them working with us in that regard. It really doesn't change, other than strengthening the depth of our team, and hopefully puts us in a really strong position organizationally without necessarily changing the cap dynamic. You realize we were probably $60,000 within the cap the other night just to field our lineup."

With Rask back in the fold, the Bruins will send Jeremy Swayman to Providence - a difficult but necessary transaction. After an up-and-down start to the season, Swayman had settled in over the last several weeks and compiled an 8-6-2 record with a 2.26 goals against average and .918 save percentage through 16 games. For his career, the 23-year-old is 15-9-2 with a 1.96 GAA and .928 save percentage.

Rask will team up with Linus Ullmark, who, like Swayman, has performed well in recent weeks. The first-year Bruin is 11-5-0 with a 2.57 GAA and .917 save percentage through 16 games.

"Disappointed, not overly surprised based on what it was trending and how it was tracking for Tuukka's health and potential availability," Sweeney said of Swayman's reaction to the news on Tuesday. "We didn't necessarily have a timeline. Even the plans that we had sort of laid out were disrupted. But Jeremy took it in stride as a professional and he's extremely motivated to be a topflight goaltender, which we believe in.

"He knows that and the commitment we made to him. Part of it was this summer in trading a good, young goaltender in Daniel Vladar and allowing Jeremy to play even Opening Night, for that matter. He knows he's a big part of our current team, as well as moving forward…most importantly, he's got a hell of a long career in front of him as a Boston Bruin."

Video: Sweeney speaks with media Tuesday at WIA

Sweeney reiterated to Swayman that he will remain a crucial part of the group, particularly with the unknowns surrounding COVID-19 and the relentless schedule the Bruins are likely to have the rest of the way.

"We've got an incredibly busy stretch coming up, not just pre-All-Star, but I think coming out of the All-Star [break] that likely we'll have to find some games to make up. We're gonna have a busy stretch," said Sweeney. "Having a very deep [roster] in that position is probably gonna be important for us and we may have to tap into it.

"Should we have an injury or COVID or some sort, certainly Jeremy will have the opportunity and we expect that he would play. He may play a big role in that. That's part of the process of having the depth that I think is required in what we're all facing."

Nevertheless, Sweeney said, he understands Swayman's disappointment, especially with the success he's displayed to this point in his young career, while adding that he was impressed with the competitiveness that shone through during their conversation.

"It's generally not a straight, linear path," said Sweeney. "Take the opportunity to work on your game and expand it and realize that there's challenges associated with everybody's professional career. And Jeremy, to his credit, recognizes all of those things. I think the single biggest thing that came out of my conversation today was he just stared at me and looked and said, 'Well, if those two guys struggle, do I get the net?'

"That's what you want to hear from a player. Any young player that has confidence in himself - and he's had some success - will accept the fact that he's got some things to continue to work on. Nut in a competitive environment that we're trying to win, the best players are gonna play. And I don't think Linus and Tuukka would look at it any differently.

"Hopefully it's just a bump in the road for him in terms of it's not a huge setback, it's just go and gain some experience in some situations - we've got areas of his game we'd like him to continue to work on. He's gonna be a goalie for us for a long time, and that's ultimately what the message was."

Sweeney added that Rask will also play an important part in the development of both Swayman and Ullmark moving forward.

"I think that Tuukka's very open to really extending himself anywhere," said Sweeney. "Going down to Providence and talking to [P-Bruins coach] Ryan Mougenel and how receptive he was to anyone and everyone down there, I think he's in a comfortable place. He's gone through an extensive rehab and committed to playing hockey, which really, you wind it back coming out of the playoffs, there was no indication that he was necessarily gonna play anymore based on his health.

"I think that he's very open, and Jeremy's part of that. They have a good relationship. And I think Linus and Tuukka will do well together, push each other, continue to improve in the areas that they want to and help our team win hockey games. That's ultimately why he re-signed and we moved forward."

Video: Rask signs one-year deal with the Bruins on Tuesday

On the Way Up

The Bruins have won five of six games since returning from their extended holiday break, including two impressive wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. Sweeney said he has been "pleasantly surprised" with how the group has performed following a lengthy time away and Cassidy's line changes - namely swapping David Pastrnak and Craig Smith on the right side.

"Some of the line changes that Bruce and some of the players discussed have certainly worked and given us a boost," said Sweeney. "I think the goaltending has been strong for the last little while - as I referenced a few months ago that it was OK, but it's trended in the right direction. Credit to them, credit the players themselves. It hasn't been easy on any team as well as ours….I think our team's done a nice job of trying to get together, get on the same page.

"We had several new faces - where they fit has been some of the challenges presented. But they're professionals and doing a good job and I think they're enjoying getting to know each other now and gelling a little bit. Obviously with Taylor [Hall] and Pasta going in with [Erik] Haula, it's certainly given us a bump. But we've also had some players that have contributed on the bottom part of it.

"Our defense, you look at Matt Grzelcyk with five points [on Monday] night, it's important. But it's not gonna change moving forward, it's only gonna get harder with the number of games. Injuries are gonna come along with that. But we're happy with the uptick and just hoping to continue with the momentum."

It's A Waiting Game

Sweeney said the Bruins are hopeful that Nick Foligno will not miss significant time after leaving Saturday night's win in Tampa with a lower-body injury. The winger fell awkwardly in front of the Lightning net and was forced to exit the contest.

Foligno was at Warrior Ice Arena on Tuesday morning for some off-ice work as he waits the result of an MRI.

"Not sure," Sweeney said when asked if Foligno will miss time. "We're waiting for the MRI results to come back and Dr. [Peter] Asnis to give us the update. He was walking around and doing some little stuff this morning as well. Hopefully we're on the shorter side of the injury."

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