Why the Bruins Won't Deal Tim Thomas...Yet

Tim: hey, how'd my awesome goaltending look from your seat on the bench, kid? Tuukka: you're just keeping the crease warm for me, old man.

At the start of the season, in my 10 11 predictions column, I led off with the prediction that Tim Thomas will not be traded this season, but that beyond this year, things might be different.  I told our Dear Leader that I'd like to expound on the idea why Thomas wouldn't be dealt this season in an article.  His response? 

"Sure, but it might be the shortest article ever.  All you'd have to write is 'no one's going to want that contract.'"

Fair point.  That's why he's the Stanley Cup of Chowder, and I'm just an oyster cracker.  Be that as it may, Thomas' stellar play of late has re-opened the door to this argument.  After Tuukka Rask looked ordinary in the season opener, Thomas has been absolutely stellar in the two games since, stopping 60 of 61 shots and looking completely healed after offseason hip surgery.  The door is open for Thomas to be the #1 goaltender, or at least #1A, instead of simply the league's best backup. 

So, the question remains, is a Thomas trade viable this season?  And if not, what about next season?

Two games does not a season make.  If it did, Thomas would be high in the running to claim his second Vezina Trophy.  You would have expected some rust on the guy since he had offseason hip surgery, which made him all but untradeable.  Given the agility he has displayed, we can probably say that his hip problems are behind him.  So one wonders whether this might be an attempt to showcase Thomas for a trade.  It's a logical thought process, after all; we know the Bruins tried to trade Thomas in the offseason.  And we know that he had hip surgery, somewhat to the surprise of those following the situation.  While one cannot say for certain that the hip killed any possible trade, it surely hindered trade talks.  Since Thomas is now healthy, and the Bruins have displayed that for all the NHL to see, that particular restriction on a trade can be set aside. 

Of course, there's the little matter of his contract.  Thomas carries a cap hit of $5 million this year and each of the next two.  From a cap management perspective, that contract seemed misguided at the time, given Thomas' age.  I believed then, as I do now, that it was partly a reward for past performance, as Thomas' first deal with the Bruins was one of the greatest bargains in NHL history.  Thomas earned $1.1 million in 2008-9, a year when he won the Vezina Trophy.  I am generally a big believer in "what have you done for me lately" when it comes to contracts.  Rewarding players for what they have previously done more than what they are yet to do is a sure-fire way to get into salary cap hell. 

Even so, Thomas' contract was hardly out of line with many of the other premier goaltenders in the NHL at the time. Take a look at the goaltenders who will earn $5 million or more this season, in descending order of 2010-11 salary, with their overall contracts listed.

Roberto Luongo, $10 million in 2010-11; 12 years, $64 million contract .

Henrik Lundqvist, $7.75 million; 6 years, $41.25 million.

J.S. Giguere, $7 million; 4 years, $24 million.

Miikka Kiprusoff, $7 million; 6 years, $35 million.

Tomas Vokoun, $6.3 million; 4 years, $22.8 million.

Ryan Miller, $6.25 million; 5 years, $31.25 million.

Thomas, $6 million; 4 years, $20 million.

Niklas Backstrom, $6 million; 4 years, $24 million.

Cristobal Huet, $5.625 million; 4 years, $22.5 million (good investment, that).

Marc-Andre Fleury, $5.25 million; 7 years, $35 million.

Martin Brodeur, $5.25 million; 6 years, $31.2 million.

Cam Ward, $5 million; 6 years, $37.8 million.

Looking at that group in a vacuum, you'd think, "well heck, Thomas' contract isn't so bad."  Given a do-or-die game, the only guys on that list you'd definitely take over Thomas are Luongo, Lundqvist, Vokoun and Miller.  Kiprusoff and Brodeur are debatable. You'd definitely take Thomas over the other guys on that list.

(What's that?  Hell yes, the prospect that Thomas is better than Brodeur is debatable.  Look at the numbers.  He's not the Martin Brodeur of the mid-90's or mid-2000's anymore.  For crying out loud, Shawn Thornton just beat him cleanly.)

Alas, those contracts all had one thing in common: they were signed before the 2010 free agent period.  The contract signed by Thomas, as well as those by Ward and Luongo, which were contract extensions signed last season, and to a lesser extent, the 4 year, $18 million deal signed in January by Jonas Hiller, were like buying dot-com stocks in 1999; the roof was about to cave in on goaltending contracts.  Look at the contracts signed by the top unrestricted free agent goaltenders in the 2010 offseason:

Marty Turco, 1 year, $1.3 million.

Chris Mason, 2 years, $3.7 million.

Dan Ellis, 2 years, $3 million.

Martin Biron, 2 years, $1.75 million.

Pekka Rinne, 2 years, $6.8 million.

Michael Leighton, 2 years, $3.1 million.

Antero Niittymaki, 2 years, $4 million.

Antti Niemi, 1 year, $2 million.

(Jaroslav Halak doesn't count, since he was a restricted free agent, but just for the record, he signed for 4 years, $14 million.)

Looking at that list, you might think that the market for top-end goalies didn't necessarily cave in, but rather, there just weren't any on the market.  After all, the only guy on that list who you could make a case for as a top 15 goaltender is Rinne.  However, Evgeni Nabokov fled for the KHL because he couldn't get a team to offer him a deal to his liking.  Nabokov was easily a top 15 goaltender, and then some.  The guy was 4th in the NHL in GVT (29.6), and yet couldn't find a single team willing to give him a contract that paid what he felt he was worth.  The Sharks opted to sign Niittymaki and Niemi instead, saving themselves about $2 million this year over the $6 million Nabokov demanded, and a heck of a lot more in the long term.

Teams are going cheaper in goal, at least they did this offseason.  That's perhaps not a huge shock when you note that the starting goaltenders in the Stanley Cup Final were Niemi and Leighton, neither of whom have ever been, nor are likely to be, top-level goaltenders. The NHL, like most sports leagues, is a copycat league, and teams will try to copy the success of the winners.  Indeed, two of the last three Cup-winning goaltenders have been mediocrities or worse: Niemi and Chris Osgood. If you want to count Ward, who was poor in the regular season in 2005-6, but caught fire in the playoffs, it's three of five.  (Marc-Andre Fleury isn't exactly a star, but he was at least good when the Penguins won the Cup.)

Of course, historically, that doesn't hold up.  Historically, the Cup winning goaltender has been a superstar, or at least a player having a superstar season.  Can you win without a star goaltender?  Of course; it's been proven plenty of times.  But the plan of deliberately trying to win without one is a relatively recent concept, for which we can thank the Detroit Red Wings, for whom Osgood was an abject liability in 2008.  Osgood was in net because he worked cheap, freeing the Wings up to spend lavishly elsewhere. 

However, there's a flaw in that plan, too.  Like Ward, Osgood was excellent in the playoffs.  I have issues with the idea that a player can just turn it on and off like Osgood apparently did (he was dreadful in both the 2007-8 and 2008-9 regular seasons, and yet fantastic in both playoffs), and am more inclined to credit luck and small sample size, but the point remains that whether he's an According-to-Hoyle star goaltender or not, he played like a star goaltender.  And ultimately, that's what matters.  Niemi was mediocre for the Blackhawks last year both in the regular season and the playoffs.  Ditto Leighton for the Flyers.  Maybe the idea of the mediocre goaltender winning a Cup is nothing new, (see also, Mike Vernon) but the idea of a goaltender who is nothing special in the playoffs most certainly is. If you're going to have a goaltender play well in the playoffs, you're likely to have more success with a good goaltender than a bad one.  Given that, I am not inclined to believe that this trend of skimping on goaltenders is here to stay.

Back to Timmy, as it stands right now, there are 17 teams that could take on his contract without giving back an onerous contract in return.  Of those, 10 are plenty happy with their goaltenders, 3 more (Atlanta, Columbus and Dallas) want to give their young goaltenders a chance, and two others are non-contenders with too much money committed to goaltending as is (Edmonton and the NY Islanders).  The Lightning could easily take on Thomas' contract, but you have to wonder if he would accept a trade there, and in any case, the Lightning are still very much in the midst of rebuilding, and are not likely to be in the market for an expensive goaltender.

Really, the only prospect for a trade right now would be the Capitals, who do not have an established goaltender, and are a bona fide contender with defensive issues that could be camouflaged by a top goaltender.  The Caps are a surprising $3.3 million under the salary cap, which gives them some flexibility this year.  However, they have a lot of quality young players hitting free agency after this year, and would probably be reluctant to take on a long-term commitment like Thomas.  Maybe if they want to shake things up, and tire of Mike Green's annual disappearing act in the playoffs, they could work out a deal involving Green and Thomas (obviously, the Bruins would have to give up a lot more than just Thomas), but that seems like a stretch.

So right now, the 3 years and $15 million due Thomas looks unpalatable in the current market, and is by far the biggest barrier to a trade. Ah, but next year is different.  For one thing, as it stands, every team in the league has a significant amount of cap space for next season.  True, there are free agents who will need to be signed, and roster spots to fill, and so a lot of that cap space will be consumed.  But it means there are lots of options, which is something that the Bruins don't have right now for a trade.  What's more, the free agent crop for next season is a pretty weak one.  There are going to be a lot of dollars chasing some not-so-great players.  Who are the best of the free agents?  Once you get past Brad Richards, Alexander Semin and Andrei Markov, there aren't many stars to be found, at least up front.

You'll notice that Ilya Bryzgalov and Tomas Vokoun are free agents as well, and Vokoun is a mortal lock to leave Florida.  (As a late-season rental, a Vokoun to the Capitals deal makes a lot of sense, actually.)  You could thus make a strong case that the two best free agents out there are goaltenders.  This might actually help the Bruins in their quest to move Thomas, believe it or not.  Bryzgalov could certainly follow the path of his countryman Nabokov and entertain offers from the KHL, and price himself right out of the Coyotes' range.  Vokoun will be demanding top dollar, and is certainly entitled to it, but whether someone will give it to him is another question.  Thomas' contract may look reasonable compared to those demands.  The cap hit of $5 million for each of the next two years seems unpalatable, but in terms of dollars paid out, it's actually $8 million over two years ($5 million in 2011-12 and $3 million in 2012-13).  And at two years, as opposed to three, there's much less long-term risk attached.  Teams that are trying to make sure they're above the cap floor, but want to save money, would be very attracted to a deal like that, particularly with the uncertainty of the next CBA negotiation pending. 

There's also the issue of the no-trade clause.  Right now, Thomas wants to stay in Boston, keep his job and keep Tuukka Rask stapled to the bench.  This competition should lead to inspired play by both and be fun to watch all year.  If nothing else, the Bruins are guaranteed to have the best backup goaltender in the NHL, which isn't a terrible problem to have.  As well as Thomas has played, I do not believe that will happen; at some point, Rask will assert himself as the #1 goaltender and push Thomas aside.  And assuming that happens, Thomas figures to become far more receptive to a trade in the offseason, even if, right now, he isn't. 

Taking all this together, I think the chances that Thomas will be traded this season are very small.  Maybe a freak injury to some Cup contender's goalie could change that, but I believe the chances of a Thomas trade this season are less than 10%.  In the offseason, however, I believe the chances of a deal will rise dramatically, to at least 50%.

Of course, if Tuukka goes the way of Andrew Raycroft and Blaine Lacher, just forget I ever wrote any of this.

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