Quietly, late on Thursday afternoon, with a blizzard brewing in the sky, it ended here for Tim Thomas. One of the best goalies in Bruins history, while walking his dogs along a Colorado mountain range, learned via a telephone call from general manager Peter Chiarelli that his playing rights had been traded to the New York Islanders.
“He’s comfortable with it, at peace with himself,’’ said Chiarelli. And, much to his credit, Chiarelli later offered, “We don’t win a Cup without him.’’
Unless Thomas one day adds details and context, we’ll never really know what happened inside his head in the weeks and months following his sensational performance in the 2011 playoffs that concluded with the Bruins winning their first Stanley Cup since 1972.
He was brilliant, his play by far the No. 1 reason the Bruins won the Cup, even if by saying that it doesn’t do justice to just how essential Zdeno Chara was (is) to the club’s success or how critical it was (is) to have coach Claude Julien framing the game plan and maintaining a team-wide buy-in on defensive accountability.
We do know, though, that the bridge burning, the start of Thomas’s end here, came Jan. 23, 2012, when he opted not to join his teammates for their White House visit. Staying in his hotel room as a conscientious objector in itself separated him from the pack, set him apart from team identity. Then he went Facebook with his anti-government leanings, posting his conservative beliefs almost simultaneous with his teammates exchanging farewell handshakes with the president.
Fine, don’t go to the wedding. But then don’t stand on the church steps and smack a pie in the groom’s face as he walks out the door with his new bride.
Thomas that day clearly wanted attention, and got it, using both the team brand and his teammates’ shoulders to garner it. None of it was illegal or immoral, but it was defining and damaging to himself and his team.
Over the coming weeks, as he Facebooked more and refused to comment to the media, it again left teammates to answer for him. Truth was, there was little they could say or cared to say, at least for the record.
The point of no return came over the summer when Thomas, through agent Bill Zito, informed management that he was exhausted, mentally burned out, and unlikely to play in 2012-13, if ever again. When his intentions became public, Chiarelli noted that Thomas still held some hope of playing again in 2013-14, maybe with an eye on suiting up again for Team USA at the Sochi Olympics.
“If anyone can do it, it can be him,’’ said Chiarelli, maintaining a level of civility and unflappability that not all GMs might be able to muster. “Regardless of his conditioning, he’s done some pretty special stuff at a later age.
“But I can’t really go beyond that. I don’t know what he’s been doing. I know at the age of 38 or 39 that it would be tough, physically and mentally, to take a year off and come back.’’
Nothing, Chiarelli added, would suggest to him that Thomas is coming back this season. If he does return this season or next, the Islanders must compensate the Bruins with a second-round pick. That in itself is a stunner. I was among the many who believed that Chiarelli, if able to find a suitor, would need to send a draft pick the other way for someone to take the $5 million cap hit off Boston’s books.
The move was a win-win for Chiarelli, knocking money off the ledger and adding a potential asset rather than yielding a pick.
“I wasn’t really shopping him,’’ Chiarelli said. “We were fine with cap space even before we moved him, so the urgency wasn’t there.’’
All in all, Chiarelli made the most of an unfortunate situation, one not of his doing. Effective managing. The $5 million add back to his budget, based on math he offered, leaves him with some $8.5 million in cap space. He also could tap into up to another $4 million from Marc Savard’s long-term injury exemption.
The NHL trade deadline is April 3, which means if he wants to use upward of $12.5 million in cap space (all figures reflect total contract values), he has the juice. That’s a very comfortable margin.
“More flexibility, I can be a bit more proactive,’’ Chiarelli said. “I can’t say that I’ve looked at it that closely. Right now, I don’t have a player or a player type in mind. We’re, what, 6-7 weeks away, and I want to see how this plays out, who’s available.’’
The one obvious foible, yet again, is the ever-struggling Boston power play, which led Chiarelli in February 2011 to land Tomas Kaberle from Toronto in an aggressive deadline deal. Kaberle was a bust, and has remained so with both the Hurricanes and Canadiens.
It’s abundantly clear by now, though, that Julien & Co. have to find a better power-play method, not just better parts. Chiarelli can shop and spend to his heart’s content, but until the coaching staff can design better movement and quicker passing (the two are often connected), even a Mike Bossy-Brett Hull-Steven Stamkos hybrid might not be able to shake down the thunder.
And let’s not forget, the Bruins proved in the 2011 playoffs that it is possible to win a Cup without a power play.
The key to doing that? Thomas. No one in the dressing room ever believed he was coming back, but all who remain from that sensational spring of 2011 know that it was his Conn Smythe performance that not only saved the puck but also saved the Bruins from their own hapless power play, carried them to that Cup.
He will be remembered now for many things, including his bizarre, protracted, anticlimactic departure. But he also should be remembered for what he did best, overcoming an initial bias that he was only good enough to play in Europe, then winning a pair of Vezinas, the Cup, and the Conn Smythe.
Thomas got it done, the hard way, a career path he followed right to his last day here.
GM got lesson in goaltending
When I asked him if watching Tim Thomas’s work in the Boston net had taught him anything about goaltending, GM Peter Chiarelli first offered this self-deprecating line: “Well, I’m in that boat [with other GMs] that can’t figure them out. If you remember, I’m the one who went out and got Manny Fernandez.’’
Acquired in a July 1, 2007, trade from Minnesota for Petr Kalus, the oft-injured Fernandez appeared in only 32 games for the Bruins over two seasons, failing to win the job from Thomas, then he retired.
What Chiarelli learned most from Thomas, he said, was how vital it is for a goaltender to bring a high compete level to the position.
“There’s the size, all the technical stuff, all that stuff,’’ said the GM. “But if the compete’s there, then that’s a position where you can work your way through it.
“Tim’s compete was outstanding. And actually watching him progress with us, and watching him compete, it made me look at goalies in a different light.’’
Fasth thinking in Anaheim?
Strong start out of the gate by the Anaheim Ducks, hard on the heels of the Blackhawks for the top spot in the West, after last season’s postseason DNQ. The biggest surprise out there is 30-year-old goalie Viktor Fasth, signed as a free agent in the offseason ostensibly as a reliable hand to back up Jonas Hiller, who is six months older. Headed into weekend play, Fasth was a perfect 4-0-0 in four starts, with a miserly 1.06 goals-against mark and a .957 save percentage — leading the league in those last two categories. He’s probably not going to bump Hiller to backup, but Fasth’s play could have coach Bruce Boudreau moving them soon into an equal job share situation. Boudreau: “He’s just calm as a cucumber.’’
Making a Weiss move?
“Ridiculous.’’ So says Panthers GM Dale Tallon when it comes to rumors that he’s looking to deal talented No. 1 pivot Stephen Weiss. Nonetheless, the chatter won’t go away, and Weiss, the No. 4 pick in the 2001 draft, could be the next big cat out of Sunrise, following ex-linemate Nathan Horton. If Tallon is looking to make a move, the Oilers will get aggressive in a bid because they are injury-depleted at pivot with both Shawn Horcoff (knuckle) and Eric Belanger (foot) expected to miss at least another month. No. 1 Oiler pivot Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also has been hindered by a wonky shoulder.
Goalie in good position
Bill Zito, agent for both Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, is expected to pick up contract talks with Peter Chiarelli about an extension for Rask, especially now that Thomas is clear of the books. Zito and Chiarelli talked extensively on deals of three and four years last summer. But rather than have it drag on perhaps through the lockout (see: P.K. Subban), they settled on a one-year deal that pays Rask $3.5 million this season. Rask thus far is delivering the goods, which should boost his next contract to a minimum $5 million a year on a two- or three-year deal, while something of four years or more could boost him to $6 million a year. The CBA allows Chiarelli to extend deals during the season for any of his free agents, including the likes of Rask, backup Anton Khudobin, Andrew Ference, and Horton.
Snag in net for Schneider
Roberto Luongo is getting far more net time in Vancouver than anyone expected, which isn’t good news for Cory Schneider’s learning curve. The ex-Boston College goalie was supposed to own the Canucks net this season, with Luongo dished to the Panthers or Leafs. But Luongo remains in residence and has made the majority of the starts the last two weeks. Meanwhile, Schneider’s agent, ex-goalie Mike Liut, told the Vancouver Sun that it would be better to get Luongo dealt sooner rather than later. Asked if Luongo were to get, say, 40 starts, Liut responded, “That’s a disaster [for Schneider].”
It don’t come easy
Gotta feel for ex-Bruin Adam Oates, whose Capitals stumbled to a 2-8-1 start, worst in the NHL. Oates is smart and easy to approach, but he’s a first-year head coach who had less than a one-week training camp to teach the ever-fragile Capitals a new system. “The game did not come easy for me,’’ Oates told the Toronto Star, noting that his own struggles in his early pro years shaped his open-communication approach. “I wanted to have a coach talk to me more often. I wanted more ammunition. Not every guy does, but I did.’’ Ultimately, the key for Oates will be the same as it is for all Capitals coaches: finding ways for Alex Ovechkin to drum up offense. Through those first 11 games, Ovie was a lackluster 3-4—7 and a minus-5.
Rupp goes on the Wild side
In need of some size before yet again falling out of playoff contention in the West, the big-spending Wild swapped with the Rangers to bring in 6-foot-5-inch winger Mike Rupp, who opened the season on Causeway Street with a battle against strongman Shawn Thornton. Rupp, 33, lacks finish, but he’s an honest, willing combatant. If he can add a couple of inches of confidence to the small, skilled forward set in St. Paul, then he’s done his job. Meanwhile, the Rangers picked up yet another shot blocker, ex-Flyer Darroll Powe, who ranked No. 2 among all forwards last season in blocks (91). Like tough guy George Parros in Florida, Powe is also a Princeton grad.
No ducking the issue
The Ducks really have no choice but to extend the contracts of UFAs-to-be Ryan Getzlaf (C) and Corey Perry (RW), both on the books for $5.325 million. They’re sort of SoCal’s Sedin twins, and the Ducks only wish they could get them for the same $6.1 million cap hit that Henrik and Daniel Sedin took to stay in Vancouver.
Headed into weekend play, veteran big man Jason Arnott remained without a contract. He had a deal worked out with the Rangers straight out of the lockout, but he failed the physical. Arnott, 38, can play center or wing, which should land him a job soon, possibly in Edmonton, where he began his career in the fall of 1993. Career line to date: 1,244 games, 938 points . . . New team, but same ol’ Scott Gomez. Bought out by the Habs, Gomez hitched on with the red-hot Sharks. But headed into weekend play, Gomez stood a paltry 0-2—2 after seven games . . . Tomas Tatar, a Czech-born center, made his debut with the Wings last week. Fast and crafty, Tatar is a fourth-year pro, toiling all these years at AHL Grand Rapids. Like Boston captain Zdeno Chara, he spent some of his early junior days with Dukla Trencin . . . Columbus tough guy Jared Boll is training twice a week, tuning up his fighting mechanics, with Eli Ayars, an ex-Marine and retired MMA fighter. Ayars describes his prized client as “steel wrapped in leather.’’ . . . It took ex-Bruin Phil Kessel until Thursday in Winnipeg, his 11th game, to score his first goal of the season. As of Friday, he was 1-6—7 on 46 shots on net. Ex-Bruin back liner Gilles Marotte holds the modern record for most shots on net (153), one season, without scoring a goal. He did it in 1967-68, his first year in Chicago after being part of the package that Milt Schmidt put together to acquire Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, and Fred Stanfield.