April 12, 2012

From NEHJ: Changing of the guard?

By Jesse Connolly

Imagine it’s June 20, 2012. The sun is beating down on you and the millions of other Bruins fans packed tightly along Causeway Street and throughout the city of Boston. The duck boats are gassed up and ready to leave the TD Garden parking lot as a second Stanley Cup parade in as many summers is about to commence. 

As soon as this summer, the Bruins may have to decide when Tuukka Rask succeeds Tim Thomas in net. (Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

As you worm your way closer, squeezing through the sweaty masses to get a better view of the two-time defending champs, you make your way to the front just in time to see Tim Thomas proudly lifting hockey’s Holy Grail high above his head. Thomas has just done the unthinkable, again, carrying the Bruins to another Stanley Cup win.

As the two-time Vezina Trophy winner and back-to-back recipient of the Conn Smythe Trophy rolls by, you expel every ounce of energy and scream your lungs out for a goaltender who’s now a god to Bruins fans. Thomas’ legendary playoff performances have cemented his spot among the game’s all-time greatest players.

But as the duck boat carrying a man who has crafted arguably the greatest feel-good tale in the history of Boston sports roars off into the distance, little do you realize this will be the last time you’ll see Thomas as a member of the Bruins. Less than two weeks later, the player who almost singlehandedly ended a 39-year championship drought and brought immeasurable joy to long-suffering Bruins’ fans will be handed a one-way ticket out of town, thanked for his time and pointed to the nearest exit.

The thought of Thomas leading the Bruins to a second consecutive Cup, then promptly being kicked out the door, is unfathomable to many. It seems blasphemous. It sounds like complete crazy talk.

What if it isn’t?

* * *

For the better part of three seasons, the majority of the other 29 teams in the NHL have been envious of the Boston Bruins’ goaltending situation.

Armed with two superb netminders in Thomas and Tuukka Rask, the Black and Gold have ranked among the league’s top squads in goals-against average throughout the duo’s tenure together. Thomas, however, has been the go-to goaltender for most of the past two seasons, winning the Vezina Trophy for the 2010-11 season and standing between the pipes for all 25 of Boston’s postseason games last spring.

But how long can that dynamic carry on? Will there come a point when Rask grows tired of being the understudy and is no longer content being the so-called “1B” on the Bruins’ depth chart?

“They’re good friends and Tim recognizes he can’t play all the games,” Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said. “Tuukka wants more net every year. That’s a question we have to ask ourselves every summer.”

This upcoming summer might just be that time. On July 1, Rask will become an unrestricted free agent, while Thomas, who will be 38, will see his no-movement clause expire — enabling the Bruins to trade him anywhere, should they desire to do so, both prior to and throughout the final season of his current contract.

“I can’t tell you how long it will last,” Chiarelli continued. “I’d like it to last a couple more years, but at some point we won’t be able to maintain it. At that point, we’ll have to make some decisions. But right now, I don’t see an end in sight.”

Rask, who turned 25 in March, certainly has done more than enough to prove he’s worthy of being a bona fide No. 1. In 2009-10, his rookie season, the Finnish netminder took over the reins with Thomas injured. Rask went far beyond just “holding his own.” The lanky puck-stopper finished the season with the best goals-against average and save percentage in the NHL.

“The thing with Tuukka is he’s got a good head on his shoulders and he knows his time will come,” Chiarelli said. “That speaks to the relationship between the two goalies, too. He’s patient, competitive and at some point he’s going to say, ‘Peter, I want the net.’ He’s been very good and he’s got a world-class goalie that he’s working with, too.”

While the GM  understandably expressed no desire to break up his terrific tandem, Chiarelli has a lot of things to consider over these next few months. For starters, another phenomenal postseason run from Thomas could make even considering trading the veteran — on the surface — markedly less appealing.

Further complicating things is a groin injury Rask suffered March 3, which was expected to sideline him for the rest of the regular season and possibly the early stages of the playoffs.

“Nobody knows how the goalies are going to emerge from the episode,” MSG commentator and writer Stan Fischler said when asked about Rask’s recovery, “particularly because most of the contemporary goalies rely on the butterfly and therefore they’re more prone now than ever before to the kind of injury that he (Rask) got.”

Thomas, of course, has been known for his unconventional style, regularly darting out of his crease at opposing shooters, while lunging and leaping across the blue paint in order to make saves. 

Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

“My feeling is that Thomas is a very inimitable type of goaltender,” Fischler said. “He’s very reminiscent of (longtime Islanders goalie) Billy Smith in terms of his feistiness and the whole manner in which he conducts himself, which I like. I would say that the only reason why you might want to reconsider Thomas over Rask is because of his age, but I don’t foresee any particular decline in his ability.”

Many have wondered if how Thomas conducts himself off the ice has any bearing on things, be it the team’s performance or the length of the netminder’s tenure in Boston.

The Flint, Mich., native made headlines across North America when he elected to not join his teammates for a trip to the White House, as the Bruins were honored for their 2011 Stanley Cup championship by President Obama in January.

“Obviously, everyone has a different opinion,” former Bruin Shawn Bates (Medford, Mass.) said. “He’s his own person. He’s an adult and makes his own decisions, and that’s fine. If it were me, I definitely would’ve gone to the White House. It’s the president of the United States. It’s an honor for you to go there to meet him, even if you don’t agree with him on certain issues.”

Bruins president Cam Neely issued a statement on the afternoon of the incident, stating that the club was disappointed in Thomas’ decision. But just as the drama began to die down, the former University of Vermont standout again had the spotlight cast upon him when he took to Facebook, sharing his religious and political beliefs with the masses.

The Bruins’ play began to dip as the off-ice theatrics played out, as the team went nearly two months between winning streaks. Was it just a coincidence, or did the two go hand-in-hand?

“What I’ve said before and I’ll say it again was that Tim was being Tim,” Chiarelli said. “That’s the Tim we’re used to. He speaks his mind. I believe there are other reasons why our play dipped after that. It might’ve been a little bit of a distraction, but it certainly wasn’t out of character for what we know from Tim. That’s the way I see it.”

Plenty of Fischler’s fellow scribes have written some pretty passionate pieces about Thomas, most of which painted him as a so-called locker room cancer. However, “The Hockey Maven” — who contributes to hockeyjournal.com — doesn’t share their views.

“Hockey players are interested in winning,” Fischler said. “The other stuff around is not really essential and nobody on the Bruins is more of a determined winner than Tim Thomas. So if there’s anybody grumbling about him, that’s their problem. I don’t know about it. I read a couple things after the Washington thing. To me, that’s irrelevant. Nobody is thinking about that when they go on the ice.” 

B's netminder Tim Thomas (Brian Babineau/Getty Images)

But even if all the off-ice hoopla plays no part in considering dealing Thomas, the salary cap may compel the Bruins to do so. At present, there are 10 players on the Bruins’ roster who are bound for free agency (including all three of their deadline-day acquisitions and newcomer Marty Turco). After signing Shawn Thornton to an extension in March, Chiarelli indicated all negotiations would be put on hold until the offseason.

Though the Bruins could gain a little extra wiggle room by placing Marc Savard ($4 million) on long-term injured reserve, they’d still have to find a way to fill at least three forward spots, add one or two defensemen to the roster and — of course — sign Rask.

In total, Chiarelli will have a little more than $11 million dollars to pull this off, provided the salary cap doesn’t go down (or a lockout doesn’t wipe out the season completely).

So the big question is this: How much coin will Rask command?

“Jimmy Howard was roughly the same age and in the same vicinity of career starts, when he signed his two-year, $4.5 million deal with the Red Wings,” CapGeek’s Matthew Wuest said.

A deal like that, combined with Thomas’ $5 million dollar cap hit, could put the Bruins among the league’s biggest spenders on goaltenders.

“The top-five teams in goaltender spending range from $7.75 million to $7.25 million,” Wuest said. “So they could approach that.”

Naturally, many will wonder if Rask might entertain offers from other clubs and bolt out of Boston to be the clear-cut No. 1 elsewhere.

As far as Chiarelli is concerned, you can forget about that happening, regardless of how much money a team is willing to throw at Rask in hopes of prying him away.

“He’s a restricted free agent, and we’re going to try to sign him,” the GM said. “People ask me about an offer sheet and I say, ‘We’ll match it.’ But I don’t anticipate that.”

But what happens if it does? What happens if another GM wants to build his team around Rask and backs up a Brinks truck for the Finnish sensation? What happens if the cap slides back down, or if the free agents Chiarelli plans on keeping ask for more than he was expecting?

What, then, would be the biggest asset he could afford to part with? The answer is as clear as day: Tim Thomas.

Rask certainly has an array of accolades, but they don’t compare to what No. 30 has accomplished.

“I’m a big fan of Tim Thomas. I’m not as big of a fan of Rask,” said Fischler, likely swayed by Rask’s struggles in the 2010 playoffs against Philadelphia. “So if it was up to me, and there had to be a decision — and I don’t know that there has to be a decision — I’d go with the guy who won the Cup.”

Depending on how the postseason plays out, the Bruins might not just part ways with the goalie who won them one Cup. Thomas potentially could become expendable after helping Boston capture two consecutive championships.

That, of course, leads us to the $64,000 question: Might the Bruins have to choose between Thomas or Rask this summer?

“I don’t see that,” Chiarelli said. “We’ve got two good goalies and I don’t look that far ahead, and I don’t see us making that choice.”

Maybe Chiarelli’s right. Maybe the Bruins brass won’t have to sit down and decide if it’s time for the changing of the guard, for Rask to rise and for Thomas to step aside.

Hockey, however, is a business. You buy low and sell high. If the Bruins decide to let Thomas walk in the summer of 2013, they won’t get a darn thing back in return. If they want to wait for next year’s trade deadline, they’ll have their suitors. But if Thomas can get Boston back to the finals or — even better — lead the Black and Gold to a repeat, his value will never be higher.

No matter how you look at it, regardless of whether or not those duck boats will be hitting the streets for another rolling rally in June, there seems to be one evident truth: There isn’t much time left in the Tim Thomas Era here in the Hub of Hockey.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and the editor of hockeyjournal.com. He can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JesseNEHJ