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Tim Thomas watches the puck slide past him in the 2012 playoffs vs. Washington; Mandatory Credit: Getty Images

Making Sense of the Tim Thomas Trade

The Tim Thomas Saga has come to an end, at least in Boston.  One of the most prolific and polarizing figures in Boston Bruins history, Thomas rose from an unknown journeyman to a local folk hero to a hockey legend in just a few short years, before unceremoniously falling from grace last season.  He was dealt to the New York Islanders on Thursday.  In Part 2 of this two-part look at Tim Thomas & The Boston Bruins, we take a look at his downfall and where the two teams involved go from here.  (see Part 1)

For a guy who perhaps embodied “The American Dream,” Thomas could not even put personal politics aside to enjoy a celebration with his teammates.  After winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, US President Barack Obama extended an invitation for the Bruins to join him at the White House while in the midst of a road trip the following season.  One of just two American-born players of that Bruins squad (and the only one of them to dress in the 2011 playoffs), this honor should have meant more to Thomas than to any of the others.  Yet on January 23, 2012, Thomas was a no-show.

In fact, Thomas was the only active Bruins player to skip the White House meet-and-greet and press conference.  He released a statement explaining his actions as exercising his “right as a Free Citizen” via his Facebook page, but still left his teammates and team personnel as the front line making excuses for him and downplaying the matter.

Although Thomas wrote that “this is the only public statement I will be making on this topic,” this was certainly not the case.  It is unclear how much of a distraction this exploit of insubordination was within the dressing room, but it no doubt weighed on Thomas’ teammates to have to answer questions every day about the embattled goaltender.

Still, the company line remained.  ‘Timmy is our goalie.  Timmy is our guy.’  As long as “The Tank” was stopping pucks, who cares what he believes in?

Goalies can be quirky guys.  Tim Thomas is certainly not an exception.  He’s always come across as a simple, hard-working guy, with exceptional drive and focus.  We focused so much on his journey to the top and his trials and tribulations along the way, that it came as a shock to many that he might actually have opinions on things outside of the arena.  Agree or disagree with his political beliefs (or to the extent he goes to ascertain them), but as long as he’s not causing a mutiny amongst teammates, this is not a problem.  The problem arose when Thomas decided that bringing his opinions to the light of day meant more than participating in a light-hearted, well-earned team celebration.

We have to assume that Thomas held these beliefs for some time, long before they became public.  His teammates were likely aware, to various extents, of Thomas’ political standing.  Until January 23, 2012, none of this was an issue.  Upon skipping the White House visit and releasing his Facebook statement, Thomas had officially created a distraction.

That distraction, as well as his comments siding with Chic-Fil-A against gay marriage, seemed to linger for most of the season, cooling off only as the stretch run to the playoffs heated up.  Sure enough, Boston drew the Washington Capitals in the first round, reminding everyone of the Thomas/White House situation.

After a first round playoff exit, Thomas announced he would be sitting out the 2012-13 season to focus on what he was calling “The Three F’s: friends, family, and faith.”  When Thomas didn’t report to training camp following the end of the lockout, it left Boston no choice but to suspend him.  Slated to make $3 million this season, the Bruins weren’t required to pay him in real dollars but were still forced to carry his $5 million cap hit, the average annual value for the final season of his four-year, $20 million deal.

On their roster, Boston wasn’t exactly left hanging out to dry with Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin.  In terms of their salary cap management, however, the Black & Gold were stuck with dead money relative to roughly 14% of their total cap allowance ($70.2 million).  Because Thomas was over 35 years old when the contract went into effect, his cap hit would not go away even if he retired.  With the Bruins brushing up against the upper limits of the salary cap ceiling, how could they unload this albatross?

 

Enter the New York Islanders

By today, February 8, the 20th day of the season, all teams needed to be cap compliant.  This meant slotting your cap money both below the ceiling and above the floor.  The Islanders entered Thursday just barely above the minimum payroll of $44 million.  By taking on Thomas’ contract, even without Thomas himself coming on board, the Islanders have added $5 million in payroll flexibility in order to allow them more freedom in transactions, without paying out any more real dollars.

The Islanders can now decide whether or not to let Thomas’ contract run out after this season, rendering him an unrestricted free agent, or to toll it forward, meaning that the same issues from this season would be in play next season.

Thomas is considered unlikely to play for the Isles this season.  As far as anyone knows, he has been standing firm on his insistence to sit this season out.  Islanders General Manager Garth Snow isn’t likely to push Thomas to join the team either, as they currently possess two veteran netminders with starting experience in Evgeni Nabokov and Rick DiPietro.

That brings us to the issue of compensation.  The exchange is a conditional 2nd round draft pick from NYI in either 2014 or 2015.  Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli explained that “without getting into specifics, the [draft pick] condition is basically if [Thomas] plays.”  Assuming Thomas does not play in one game for Long Island (or be traded elsewhere by the organization), Boston will not receive compensation.

 

What does this mean for the Boston Bruins?

For Boston, this gives the team an additional $5 million in cap space.  By placing Marc Savard on long term injured reserve, they can additionally exceed the cap for his $4+ million, as well.  This flexibility now gives them the cap space to acquire nearly any player in the NHL.

The window for teams to achieve success in the salary cap era of the NHL doesn’t last very long.  Just ask the Chicago Blackhawks.  For Boston, the time is now.  The future certainly looks bright and a lot of younger players have been locked up, but this is a fickle league and things can change in an instance.  Just ask Marc Savard.

The Bruins are currently sitting atop the Eastern Conference.  They have a deep, well-rounded team, with a core that has achieved recent success.  All this has occurred with the 29th-ranked powerplay.  Now Boston has the cap space to go out and add that top tier goal scorer or powerplay specialist, or even to strengthen their third line wing.  Maybe they trade for a veteran backup goaltender.  Maybe they go after Jarome Iginla.

Iginla, the Calgary Flames captain, is currently in the last year of his deal.  The power forward has been linked to the Bruins through various trade rumors in recent years, as his Calgary squad has struggled.  The rugged, veteran winger is believed to be of the Bruins mold and has the ability to be their top scorer.

Furthermore, trading Thomas has completely removed any worries from the front office or from Rask that he could wake up tomorrow and decide to return.  For the front office, the problem just amounts to having three goalies, though one still could’ve been dealt.  There’s also no reason that Head Coach Claude Julien would have to play Thomas.

Tuukka Rask has been on a roll.  For the first time in his career, he’s been named the starting goaltender without having to look over his shoulder at Thomas.  Although he was Boston’s starter in the 2010 playoffs and was presumably the starter to begin the 2010-11 campaign, it took all of one game (one Thomas shutout) for Rask to have that job pulled from underneath him.  As friendly as Rask and Thomas reportedly are (and remain), there is no reason to play any games with Rask’s comfort or confidence in Boston’s crease right now.

At the end of the day, this was a good move for both parties.  The Islanders move up a little higher from the floor and the Bruins move a little lower from the ceiling.  Though complications could arise should Thomas choose to report to New York, such a scenario seems unlikely.  For the Bruins, this was a rather unceremonious end to the Black & Gold chapter of a man who once stood a god in the city of Boston.  His legacy may have taken a hit over the last 13 months, but it will be repaired with time.  The brilliance of Tim Thomas will be remembered in Boston, and in the record books, for as long as they both shall stand.  (see Part 1)

Tags: Boston Bruins New York Islanders NHL Trades Tim Thomas

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