July 14, 2012

From NEHJ: Facing the future

By Jesse Connolly

After crafting arguably the greatest feel-good story in hockey history, the apparent final chapter in the tale of Tim Thomas’ magical tenure in Boston has left many a fan stunned and disheartened. 

If Tim Thomas sits out the final year of his contract and the Bruins suspend him, he’ll cost them $5 million in cap space. (Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images)

In early June, general manager Peter Chiarelli confirmed rumors that the two-time Vezina Trophy winner was considering taking a hiatus from hockey. Shortly thereafter, the 2011 Conn Smythe winner and Stanley Cup champion posted on Facebook that he’d be sitting out the 2012-13 season to focus on “friends, family and faith.”

While even his most loyal supporters were left shaking their heads, Thomas’ decision was a swift punch to the proverbial gut of his employers. If the 38-year-old goaltender sits out for the final year of his current contract and the Bruins suspend him, he’ll still cost them $5 million in cap space. Because his current deal began after he turned 35, the Bruins still would be on the hook for that amount even if he retired.

Chiarelli indicated he has the option to “toll” Thomas’ contract, meaning the year-long suspension would allow him to extend the deal through 2013-14, but the Bruins wouldn’t be gaining anything on the financial front, because Thomas still would count against the salary cap. The only feasible way they can solve their problem is if Thomas has a change of heart and a contending team is willing to roll the dice on him, or if a franchise in dire need of reaching the cap floor is willing to take on his dead cap space.

There’s no denying that all signs pointed to Thomas being dealt this summer, as his no-trade clause expired July 1 — the same day Tuukka Rask officially became a restricted free agent. But the manner in which Thomas has gone about things undoubtedly has put the Bruins in a bit of a bind.

Thomas’ abrupt departure will not only affect the remainder of the summer, but the ramifications also still will be felt throughout the 2012-13 season.

More cash for Rask

While Thomas voluntarily gave up $3 million in salary, he probably indirectly made Rask a richer man. The young Finn inked a one-year deal worth $3.5 million in late June.

The brevity shows that both the team and Rask want to prove he’s capable of being the No. 1. With the 38-year-old veteran completely out of the picture, this is unquestionably Rask’s team — a vital element to the contract talks that both he and his agent likely used as leverage. Rask —who had a $1.25 million cap hit the past two seasons — might as well have just paraphrased “A Few Good Men” and told Chiarelli, “You want me in that crease. You need me in that crease!” during their negotiations.

Chiarelli strapped

If you were hoping the Bruins would kick the tires on any of the high-end talent available this summer in free agency, you can kiss those dreams goodbye. While there was only the slimmest of chances that the Bruins might see what it would take to bring one of the Parises or Suters of the world to Boston, being lumped with Thomas’ cap hit will keep Chiarelli from even picking up the phone.

Furthermore, it puts a dent in how much he can pay to his own group of free agents — including deadline-day acquisitions Mike Mottau (Avon, Mass.) and Brian Rolston — and the cheaper ones he may have hoped to acquire. Chiarelli has worked swiftly so far this offseason, re-signing the likes of Chris Kelly, Greg Campbell, Dan Paille and Rask, but as of July 1, no team had committed more money to their 2012-13 squad than the Bruins. Boston’s payroll was at $69.9 million, leaving them a paltry $277,000 in salary cap space.

Khudobin gets promoted

Anton Khudobin, who has a career goals-against average of 1.32 in the NHL, will likely be Rask's backup. (Francois Laplante/NHLI via Getty Images)

Anton Khudobin has put in his time at the minor-league level. The native of Kazakhstan, who turned 26 in May, has played in 156 AHL games and 60 ECHL games since becoming a pro in North America in 2007. Acquired in a deadline-day deal in February 2011 from the Wild, the Bruins had hoped to give him some playing time with the big club this past season, but a wrist injury caused him to miss a good chunk of time midway through the season.

When Khudobin finally did get called up near the end of the regular season, he turned in a spectacular performance in his first start for the Black and Gold, stopping 44 of 45 shots in a win over Ottawa. What’s got fans so excited about Khudobin’s presence in Boston is his superb numbers at the NHL level. That win against the Senators improved his career record to 5-1-0. In seven games, he owns a 1.32 goals-against average and .961 save percentage, giving plenty hope that the former seventh-round pick could blossom into a solid NHL netminder. 

New faces in Providence

With Khudobin no longer earning the lion’s share of starts down in Providence, the Bruins will have the opportunity to develop a few newcomers on their farm team. Boston inked Adam Morrison after his strong season with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants in March. In late May, the team signed Niklas Svedberg, who helped Bryan IF win the championship in the Swedish Elite League.

Michael Hutchinson, who made 29 starts for the P-Bruins in 2011-12, also remains in the picture. Despite Providence’s mediocre record (35-34-0-7), Hutchinson posted pretty solid numbers. The Barrie, Ontario, native had a 2.36 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. He also earned three shutouts.

Stiffer competition

Aside from the stretch run in 2010, during which Thomas was relegated to backup duties because of a hip injury and Rask became the go-to goaltender, Thomas always was tasked with facing the stiffer competition. During the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, Rask made 49 starts. Twenty of them came against teams that went on to make the playoffs that season. His record in those starts was a woeful 5-11-4, which includes his 1-10-2 mark during the Cup-winning season in 2010-11.

Going forward, Rask will no longer be able to feast on the bottom feeders. While the young netminder was a tough-luck loser on some of those nights he squared off against upper-echelon opponents, the Bruins will need him to be able to earn wins against the elite teams in the conference and Boston’s foes in the Northeast Division, against which he owns an unspectacular 13-11-2 record in his career.

Rask’s injury risk

Tuukka Rask has cashed in on Tim Thomas' decision, but cna he handle being the unquestioned No. 1 in net? (Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

While Rask’s success against the top teams in the NHL will be pivotal to the Bruins’ success, his ability to stay healthy will be paramount. Unfortunately, it’s something the 25-year-old hasn’t had much luck with the past few seasons. Rask’s struggles didn’t really hinder Boston during the 2010-11 campaign, with Thomas tearing it up, but after finishing that season with an 11-14-2 record and a modest .918 save percentage, he underwent a minor surgery on his knee.

This March, with Boston hoping to count on Rask to spell Thomas down the stretch, No. 40 went down with a groin injury against the Islanders and wasn’t able to return until midway through the team’s first-round series against Washington.

If he gets bitten by the injury bug again in 2012-13, the Black and Gold will be hurting. In addition to likely being forced to ride Khudobin during Rask’s absence, the Bruins might have to sign a veteran off the street, a la Marty Turco this spring (we saw how that worked out), or call up someone from Providence.

Relying on two unproven netminders at the NHL level isn’t exactly the situation any contender wants to be in, but that might be the case if Rask shows signs of fragility again.

Flexibility at the deadline

Being stuck with Thomas’ contract will not only handcuff Chiarelli’s ability to acquire players this summer, but the GM  also might find handling the trade deadline a chore with $5 million of dead cap space. Of course, a lot could change by then, and Chiarelli fully intends to put Marc Savard and his $4 million cap hit on long-term injured reserve, but after signing Rask (plus whoever will slot in on the third line and possibly a veteran, seventh defenseman), the Bruins general manager won’t have a lot of wiggle room.

Chiarelli’s made some pretty impactful moves at recent deadlines. Rolston found the fountain of youth this spring and was a big contributor down the stretch. And there’s no topping what Chiarelli did in 2011, bringing in pivotal pieces such as Kelly and Rich Peverley. But in those instances, the Bruins were more than able to add extra salary. Next February, when Chiarelli looks to acquire the missing pieces to a championship puzzle, he might not have that luxury thanks in large part to Thomas.

Losing a proven winner

Forget the hard feelings, the intricate CBA rules and all the financial mumbo-jumbo. What’s the biggest thing the Bruins are losing in all of this? Thomas’ proven ability to carry a team to the promised land.

No. 30 stood on his head for 25 games over a two-month stretch during the spring of 2011, turning in one clutch performance after another as the Bruins vanquished the Canadiens, Flyers, Lightning and eventually the Canucks to win their first Stanley Cup in 39 years.

Expectations deservedly are high for Rask going into next season. For so long, he’s been the goalie waiting in the wings. During his brief time as the team’s No. 1 netminder in 2009-10 — technically his rookie season — he finished with the best goals-against average and save percentage in the entire league. However, while Boston was devastated by injuries as the playoffs wore on, Rask couldn’t rise up and keep the club from blowing a 3-0 series lead against the Flyers. Does that all fall on his shoulders? Is that a guarantee the Bruins can’t count on him in the playoffs going forward? Of course not. But Thomas did what no other Bruins goalie could do for nearly four decades: bring the Cup back to Boston.

No matter how high hopes may be that Rask can carry the team throughout numerous playoff runs during his tenure, no longer having a proven commodity and certifiably clutch postseason performer such as Thomas is the biggest hurdle the Bruins will have to overcome.

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

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and is the editor of hockeyjournal.com

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ

Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com