Blaine Lacher and the virtue of patience

95-donruss-blaine-lacherIn early 1995, I took my relatively new black Boston Bruins sweater to a sports store in New Bedford to get some gold numbers placed on it. In anticipation of this, I remember weighing whether to get Cam Neely’s no. 8 or Ray Bourque’s 77 on the back, or perhaps Adam Oates’ 12. I think even Don Sweeney’s 32 came into consideration.

That I walked in and — without hesitation — requested Blaine Lacher’s name and no. 31 be heat-sealed to this thing should attest to how ridiculously hot Lacher was at the start of his career.

Fresh off a national championship at Lake Superior State, Lacher entered a vacuum in the Bruins’ goalie depth, with just veteran Vincent Riendeau, who had served as Jon Casey’s backup, as a viable option. Casey had been allowed to walk as a free agent, while John Blue had been decamped to Providence in the AHL.

The NHL returned to play from the lockout in late January, and by the end of the month, Lacher was 3-1 with an absurd .958 save percentage and 0.98 goals against average. Lacher wound up appearing in 35 of the Bruins’ 48 games that season, plus all five starts in the playoffs. He finished fifth in the Calder Trophy voting (losing out to some guy who no one ever heard from again), and the Bruins had their goaltender for at least the next decade.

Except they didn’t. For whatever reason, Lacher crashed back down to earth the following year, losing his starting gig to Craig Billington, who in turn lost his job to Bill Ranford, returning to Boston via trade with Edmonton to stabilize the Bruins’ net and carry them back to the playoffs. Lacher had played his last game in the NHL, and would be out of professional hockey a season later.

Lacher is an extreme example of burning brightly and losing the spark, but I’ve been thinking of him while I watch Jeremy Swayman wow the NHL in his brief time in Boston. Swayman had a solid career at the University of Maine, playing in the Hockey East hotbed for three seasons winning the Mike Richter award last year, before signing with Boston. And after nine games in Providence, he was called up when incumbents Tuukka Rask went down with an injury and Jaroslav Halak found himself lost in pandemic purgatory.

Swayman has been absurdly good, mind you. Through his first five games in the NHL, he’s posted a .938 save percentage and a 1.78 goals against. And more than the numbers, it’s been his poise and composure that have impressed. When he’s stopping point-blank chances or openly discussing how he enjoys shootouts, it’s hard not to get excited. So excited, in fact, that the calls for the Bruins to let both Rask and Halak walk after this season and hand the keys to Swayman and Dan Vladar next year and let it roll.

And it’s understandable. Rask has never gotten much wiggle room in Boston, but it’s important to remember that Swayman is the first goaltender with this kind of poise in Boston since … Rask. And Rask took that initial poise and built on it thanks to support from the Bruins coaching staff and another key veteran in the dressing room.

Rask had gotten into four games in the 2007-08 season and one more the following year while he waited for his turn behind Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez. But Fernandez retired before the 2009-10 season, and a hip injury that limited the defending Vezina Trophy winner Thomas opened the door for Rask, who had a .939 save percentage and a 1.78 goals against from February through the end of the season, setting himself up as the Bruins’ number one goaltender in the playoffs.

That offseason, there was a lot of talk within the echo chamber of trading Thomas and his $5 million cap figure and just handing the keys to Rask, but Peter Chiarelli and the Bruins decided against that. Instead, they brought both goaltenders back, and with Thomas on the mend after a procedure to repair the torn labrum in his hip, it wasn’t long before Thomas was playing like a world-beater again and leading Boston to the Stanley Cup, setting record after record along the way.

None of that kept Rask from becoming the Bruins’ goaltender of the future. It just built in a safety net for the team and the goalie. No position in hockey benefits more from time to develop — for every Ken Dryden, there’s a trail of young goalies, from Lacher to Mike Moffat to Jim Carey, who couldn’t sustain their initial successes. Lacher, in recent years, has pointed to a lack of support contributing to his decline in his second NHL season (though he certainly doesn’t seem bitter about the experience).

All this is to say that throwing Rask and Halak overboard in favor of a Swayman/Vladar combo next year is probably reactionary. But a Rask/Swayman tandem, with Vladar ready in the wings in Providence, sounds pretty appealing. And it could eventually lead to Rask handing the baton to Swayman, giving Boston a third franchise goalie without a break since Thomas grabbed the starting job in 2005. “Eventually” is the key word there. In the meantime, Swayman takes the ice with Rask tonight against the Buffalo Sabres. Rask is playing well in his return from his injury, Vladar has been solid when called and Halak will hopefully be back from health protocols soon.

This is a boon time for Boston goalies. I recommend enjoying it in the moment, and not rushing its natural progress. And maybe wait a year before stitching any numbers onto your jersey.

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