Each day this week, WEEI.com will be putting a player or position in the spotlight based on their ‘X-factor’ status entering the season. Monday, we took a look at Michael Ryder . Up next are the two men between the pipes in Tuukka Rask  and Tim Thomas .
Though it may be a bit strange to not consider strong goaltending to be a sure thing in Boston given the past two seasons, it is certainly worth looking into what type of production the Bruins can expect from their netminders. Each player has something big to deal with in 2010-11. For Thomas, its another year under his belt and for Rask it’s the dreaded sophomore slump.
For the Bruins, and this goes against most of the fans’ wishes this offseason, it would appear the right choice was made in not dealing Thomas and his $5 million salary cap hit. The fact of the matter is that though he is 36 years of age, is coming off hip surgery and did not show his Vezina form last season, Thomas is of utmost important to the Bruins’ operation. He started the majority of Boston’s regular season games and posted a respectable 2.56 goals against average last season. He didn’t get a single start in the postseason, but he played just as big a role as Rask in getting the team there.
So why all the negativity surrounding Thomas? One would have to guess it can’t be fun going into each season with fans expecting you to lose your job, something Thomas has undoubtedly had to deal with for quite some time. Though he made $1.8 million more than Rask (after the rookie’s performance bonuses), evaluating the position as a whole based on cap hit would actually suggest the Bruins are paying a fair price.
Entering the coming season, the Bruins will be paying $6.25 million for a tandem that gave them a 2.33 goals against average over 82 games last season. The team’s GAA was second to only the Devils. For a frame of reference regarding that $6.25 million number, that’s exactly how much reigning Vezina winner Ryan Miller  will be making with the Sabres next season. Though Thomas’ cap hit may be alarming by itself, the Bruins are paying a manageable amount for perhaps the league’s best duo in net.
Now, while Thomas’ cap hit will not change the way he plays, an increased role for Rask would dent his contributions. That isn’t to say that Thomas’ value would be diminished, as any defensive-minded team would find nothing better than having a former Vezina winner who is still fresh available to spell its young goaltender.
Rask said recently that he’s not worried about becoming the starter or trying to keep Thomas out of the net. As long as the team can have a hot hand to go with, the 23-year-old feels the Bruins are in good shape.
‘Whoever is playing good is going to play,’ Rask said earlier in the month. ‘It doesn’t matter if you’ve got 16,000 Vezinas or zero Vezinas, you know? That’s just the way it goes on our team and that’s good for everybody I think.’
Rask led the league in GAA (1.97) and save percentage (.931) last season but only started 39 games, which is a large reason as to why he didn’t get stronger consideration for Vezina. Of the three categories — GAA, save percentage, and games plays — it’s quite clear which is the most important for Rask to improve upon. Though it would be unreasonable to expect such a young player to improve upon league-leading numbers, if Rask can play somewhere around 55-60 games without hitting any sort of wall, the 2010-11 season could be a big step forward in what many believe will end up being a fruitful career.
Should Rask stumble a bit, which is perfectly understandable for goalies who dazzle in their rookie seasons (more locally, Andrew Raycroft; more recently, Steve Mason), you would still have to think that the Bruins have positioned themselves to be one of the better teams between the pipes. Even if between the two goaltenders the team allows something closer to two and a half goals per game, the improvements to the offense means the team will likely have a scoring differential better than it’s dreadful .06 mark last season.
Though Rask definitely claimed the starting job down the stretch, the two goaltenders, both of whom have both the chops and the credentials to be starters in this legue seem set to duke it out and likely split time for another season. As long as the complete product is as solid as it was a season ago, it should once again be a major position of strength.