Tuukka Rask, the goalie of Boston’s future, took a giant step back toward the present Friday when general manager Peter Chiarelli confirmed reports that Tim Thomas is contemplating taking an extended leave of absence, one that could mean he never again wears the Bruins uniform.
Thomas isn’t talking, although Chiarelli said during a Friday afternoon conference call that the 38-year-old goaltender could let his feelings known via a posting on the Internet. Based on how some of Thomas’s words have sprinkled down from The Cloud in recent months, that could make for some sensational summertime reading.
For now, based on Chiarelli’s comments, all we know is that Thomas stands with a lot of Americans - feeling bushed by the job and wanting more time with his family. Unlike most Americans, though, the Bruins have paid Thomas millions, leaving him the luxury to stay home in Colorado, live his life as he chooses, and perhaps punch in Chiarelli’s cellphone number if he feels the urge to rejoin the gainfully employed over the next few weeks or months.
“We have to deal with it, and we will,’’ said Chiarelli, whose new netminding tandem is Rask-Anton Khudobin, each of whom owns two fewer Vezina Trophies than the dormant Thomas. “I almost have to operate under the premise that he isn’t coming back.’’
When I asked Chiarelli if Thomas, with a year left on his contract, had requested an extension, Chiarelli said no.
For planning purposes, Chiarelli’s only real option is to consider Thomas gone for good. As of July 1, he can trade Thomas, which would free $5 million in cap space. Few of the other 29 NHL GMs are going to line up with offers, however, with a doubting Thomas at best ambivalent about his playing future. They’d inherit his cap number and, presumably, his ambivalence. Not a great recipe for franchise success.
Thomas’s gross pay for the first three years of his current deal was $17 million. If he calls it quits, he is forfeiting the final $3 million. Had the deal been backloaded, paying him $6 million or $7 million in 2012-13, no way would he be considering such a hiatus. But that’s the risk GMs accept when they structure such contracts. The tapered approach was designed, in part, to allow the Bruins flexibility in dealing Thomas at the end of his deal. In this case, he is using it to his advantage - all but negating Boston’s ability to trade him and essentially leaving the franchise in a pickle. Why do I hear Harry Sinden’s words (“Never fall in love with your players!’’) echoing in the background?
Now, if Rask is truly the No. 1 stopper so many believe, the pickle is a miniature dill and not one of those humongous deli numbers. I’m not as convinced as others about Rask. Great kid (age 25). Superb toolkit. But an elite stopper? We have seen hints of that over the last three seasons, during which he has won 51 times, including seven postseason victories in 2010. Overall, it’s still a fairly small sample, and we only have to look as far back as Andrew Raycroft to see that glimpses of promise don’t always deliver full proof.
Khudobin, a year older than Rask, has five NHL victories (four with the Wild), and a roster spot as Rask’s backup stands to be his first regular NHL hitch. No telling what the Bruins have in him, although he looked capable during workouts in his short end-of-season stay in Boston. Had he not been injured, Chiarelli wouldn’t have had to pluck Marty Turco out of Austria to serve as Thomas’s relief when Rask was sidelined with a severe abdominal injury.
As of now, it looks as if the Bruins must bid adieu to Thomas for a whole lot of hope and varying degrees of wannabe in Rask and Khudobin. Maybe it turns out OK, perhaps even for the better. But for the moment, Boston’s net position has been downgraded from sure thing to work in progress. For the most important position on the ice, that makes Friday’s news one tough puck to swallow.
Meanwhile, the free-thinking Thomas, if he indeed decides to stay away, stands to impair seriously his Black-and-Gold legacy. He has been a superb goaltender, far surpassing all career projections, his style and overall game for years considered not fit for the NHL. He proved everyone wrong, emphatically so, especially in 2010-11 when he won a second Vezina and was Reasons 1, 1A, and 1B the Bruins won the Cup.
Now, not even a year later, it appears he has opted to back away from the one franchise, the one city, that gave him all that he said he ever wanted. The Bruins gave him the chance to prove he had the game, the talent, and the determination to be one of the best goalies the game has ever seen.
Now, with a year remaining on the $20 million, four-year deal he was only too happy to sign in good faith, of free will, mind, and spirit, he has told Chiarelli that right now he just doesn’t have it in him to play another 8-9 months.
That is not the stuff of legend. It is, in both commitment and spirit, coming up short.