Why the Bruins shouldn’t mess with their goalie rotation of Jeremy Swayman, Linus Ullmark

Bruins

Following a 10-1-1 start, the Bruins should not subtract from their greatest strength in net.

Boston Bruins goaltenders Jeremy Swayman, left, and Linus Ullmark, right, celebrate after they defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in a shootout during an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023, in Boston.
Both Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark are playing at an elite level once again in 2023-24. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The Bruins have a good problem on their hands … again. 

Boston’s record-setting run in 2022-23 was anchored by the stellar play of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, who established themselves as the league’s best 1-2 punch between the posts. 

Through the first three-plus weeks of the 2023-24 campaign, the duo has managed to be even better. 

Swayman has opened the season with an unblemished 6-0-0 record — leading all NHL netminders (min. five starts) in both save percentage (.952) and goals against average (1.49).

The 24-year-old goalie has already saved 9.11 goals above average (per Natural Stat Trick) while recording a .912 save percentage on high-danger shots. 

Ullmark has dipped below Swayman’s scorching start … by only going 4-1-1 out of the gate with a .926 save percentage and 4.01 goals saved above average.

In other words, both Swayman and Ullmark are playing at an elite level once again — routinely elevating a 10-1-1 Bruins team that has had to protect several one-goal leads en route to gritty wins.

Of course, it hasn’t taken very long for both Swayman’s blistering start in net to raise questions about whether or not Boston should augment what has been a 50/50 partnership in net out of the gate. 

It could be tempting to shift those reps in favor of Swayman as the season goes on. 

And given Boston’s inconsistent scoring output, the case could be made that Boston should sell high before the trade deadline with Ullmark — securing a useful forward in return while subsequently giving Swayman the unquestioned role as Boston’s 1A in net. 

But for as appealing as those contingency plans are at hockey’s most important position, the old mantra of “If it ain’t broke … can and should apply here when it comes to the bedrock of this roster’s success. 

Adhering to a winning formula 

Of course, the less extreme of those two mid-season tweaks would be a redistribution of starts for Swayman and Ullmark, especially if the former doesn’t show any cracks in net as the season wears on.

But after straying from that formula at the most critical juncture of the season, Jim Montgomery and Boston’s coaching staff should heed those tough lessons doled out during the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Beyond the repetition and cohesion that both Ullmark and Swayman gain from trading off starts, keeping both netminders in and around 42 starts should be the optimal target in order to keep both fresh for the postseason.

Be it injuries or fatigue, Ullmark — whose previous career high in starts before last season was 41 in 2021-22 — could not replicate his impressive play against the Panthers last April. Swayman’s career-high in games played? 41 contests back in 2021-22.

Beyond keeping both Swayman and Ullmark fresh during the 82-game gauntlet that is the regular season, a 50/50 split in reps also ensures that the competitive fire between both netminders remains stoked — so long as both are playing at a high level.

“That’s what makes it so special is that if we didn’t have that, we’d be pissed at each other, because that wouldn’t elevate our game,” Swayman said of internal competition back in August. “And that’s something that we really take seriously.

“I’m not competing as hard, he’s not competing as hard in practice — we know that if we slump in games, the other guy’s gonna take that net. And that’s what’s gonna elevate our level of every single game.”

Of course, following a strict goalie rotation in the regular season won’t mean much if it falls to the wayside in the playoffs.

But after sticking with Ullmark for the first six games of an eventual first-round exit last spring, would Montgomery be bold enough to trade off starts for his goalies in the playoffs — win or lose?

It’s an unconventional approach, no doubt. But then again, the Bruins are an unconventional roster — paced by two goalies who could be Vezina Trophy frontrunners in back-to-back seasons.

Eliminating a pillar of strength 

Given the number of teams in desperate need of elite goaltending this season, it makes sense for a netminder with Ullmark’s resume and affordable cap hit ($5 million) to be dangled as a viable trade chip.

It’s a maneuver that might hold some validity in the coming years, especially with Swayman due a hefty new deal next summer and Brandon Bussi vying for NHL reps next season.

But in 2023-24? The Bruins can’t afford to anoint Swayman as their unquestioned ace in net and push Ullmark to the wayside.

As stellar as Swayman has been this season, the Bruins’ ability to stack points at a record-setting rate since last October has largely been a result of deploying two top goalies capable of snuffing out extended losing streaks and picking up the other netminder during rare cold spells.

Even if Swayman takes a major step forward this year, Ullmark represents the best possible insurance that Boston has in case of injury or a slump in net.

And given the personnel around those two, the Bruins’ best odds of contending this year rests on having an elite goalie in net for 82 games and beyond.

With their scoring depth sapped, Boston has less room for error when it comes to its defensive fortitude and its ability to manufacture comfortable leads. Amid their 10-1-1 start, six of those 12 Bruins’ games have been decided by a single goal.

Boston ranks first in the NHL with just 1.92 goals allowed per game, but also 15th in the league in 5v5 scoring chances against per 60 minutes (27.32).

Sure, the Bruins could eventually generate some cohesion and consistent scoring punch in their forward corps. And yes, their defense will likely tighten up when more regulars return to the lineup.

But for this Bruins roster to be at its best, it’s going to need this goalie tandem to remain in place this season.

An unsuitable return

Of course, even if Boston did opt to dangle Ullmark out on the trade market — few teams can offer up a return that would prompt Don Sweeney to uproot his roster’s greatest strength.

Yes, a team like the Oilers are in desperate need of a steadying presence in net. But Boston isn’t getting a megastar like Leon Draisaitl in any Ullmark trade, nor does Boston necessarily have the cap flexibility to bring in a star player without potentially moving out several assets in order to remain under the cap ceiling.

Yes, a 30-year-old center like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins does make sense on paper as a potential trade chip in a Bruins-Oilers blockbuster. But before his 104-point breakout last season (53 of those points on the power play), Nugent-Hopkins only surpassed 60 points two other times on some talented Edmonton teams.

With true franchise-altering talents likely not available, the Bruins shouldn’t be moving a reigning Vezina winner in Ullmark, especially during this season.

And with Ullmark holding a 16-team no-trade list, it remains to be seen if the Bruins netminder would even approve a trade to a defense-optional squad like Edmonton.

If the Bruins want to upgrade their offensive personnel, they could wait until the offseason — when a cap surge could allow them to be players for a potential free agent like Elias Lindholm, or a trade suitor willing to take on Tomas Hertl’s contract.

But given Ullmark’s importance to this 2023-24 grouping, it’d have to take a star talent to convince Boston to break up its greatest strength on the ice.

If it ain’t broke …


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