Is The Time Right To Deal Tim Thomas?

BUFFALO NY - NOVEMBER 03: Tim Thomas #30 of the Boston Bruins makes the save against the Buffalo Sabres at the HSBC Arena on November 3 2010 in Buffalo New York. The Bruins defeated the Sabres 5-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Oh man, I'm gonna take some heat for this one. 

OK, settle down, Bruins fans.  Just stick with me, and we'll get through this together. 

Seriously, are you nuts?  The dude's 7-0 and has a goals against average that can only be viewed with an electron microscope.  He's playing better than Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur rolled into one.  The only way he'd be more awesome would be if he bought beer for the entire section behind him at TD Garden. 

You can back out.  It's not too late.  Write something about your boy Brad Marchand and how awesome his first NHL goal was.  

(Sigh)

Let's do this thing.

I like Tim Thomas.  You like Tim Thomas.  And I really like the cyborg in goal wearing the #35 #30 jersey right now.  That's why it's hard for me to say this: now might be a good time to trade him.

Thomas has a GAA of 0.77.  He has a save percentage of .977.  These aren't good numbers.  These aren't great numbers.  These are absurd numbers.  However, the problem with absurd numbers is that they are unsustainable.  If you seriously believe that Timmy will let in less than a goal per game for the remainder of the season, and stop 49 out of every 50 shots, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I'd like to sell you. 

In the offseason, the Bruins worked hard to trade Thomas, and were thwarted first by the no-trade clause, then by his hip surgery, which killed any interest in him.  There is little doubt the hip surgery was beneficial; Thomas is a goaltender who relies more than most on movement and reflexes.  Where Tuukka Rask relies on textbook positioning, Thomas relies on reflexes, quickness and instinct.  (If you could put the two in a lab and combine them, you'd probably have the perfect goaltender.) 

Depending on who you ask, there may have been a trade on the table for Simon Gagne at the trading deadline last year.  Whether someone was reluctant to pull the trigger, or the no-trade clause killed it is anyone's guess.  Had it been executed, the Bruins probably would have gotten past Philadelphia and into the conference finals, since their lack of scoring would likely have been nicely addressed with that addition. 

In any case, it's no secret that the Bruins were, at minimum, open to moving Thomas.  It is also no secret that the Bruins face a cap crunch this season.  Marco Sturm and Marc Savard aren't back yet, but probably will be in the next month.  That will force the team to move some salary.  The most popular candidates for such a move are Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler.  Ryder is playing fairly well, and thus the possibility of moving him and actually getting some value is no longer absurd.  Prior to this season, I felt that the Bruins would have to send a second round pick with Ryder to entice a team to take on his contract.  Now, they might be able to move Ryder and get a token prospect in return.  Wheeler also still carries some value.  He's young, big, and has had some NHL success, but increasingly looks like a guy who needs a change of scenery.  Yes, he played a nice game last night, scoring his first goal of the season, but it was a garbage goal, and anyway, the Sabres looked dreadful for the first 30 minutes of that game. 

If the Bruins were to trade Ryder (for nominal value) and Wheeler (who they could probably get a decent return for), they would solve the short term cap problem.  However, trading Thomas would not only address the short term cap issues, but a long term cap issue as well.  Tuukka Rask is signed for this year and next at $1.25 million per year, a bargain if there ever was one.  He will be a restricted free agent after that, and probably looking for a good bit more money.  Even though the RFA status would depress his salary, and even though the salary market for goaltenders is on the decline, the Bruins are probably looking at a minimum of $4 million per season.  For 2012-13, they already have $39.4 million in salary committed to just 10 players.  That would leave them with about $19 million to fill out half the roster.  True, the cap will probably go up in that time, but even $25 million worth of cap space would leave the Bruins relying on some bargain basement pickups. 

Dealing Thomas would solve that long-term cap issue as well.  And with him playing as well as few goaltenders ever have, the Bruins would not only be able to get some team to take on his $5 million per year cap hit, but get some good assets in the deal, too. 

"But he's playing great!"

Yes, he is.  Remember in the offseason, how the Canadiens traded Jaroslav Halak after his playoff heroics?  From an asset management perspective, that was the right move.  They knew that Halak probably would not get more valuable than he was at that moment.  The problem was not that they traded Halak, but rather, that they got too little in return, and failed to get Carey Price locked down first, leading to Price having an advantage in negotiations that he wouldn't have otherwise possessed.  The Habs blew it, in the end, but the plan itself was the right one; it was their execution that failed.

If you're going to look at things from an asset management perspective, you buy low and sell high.  The Bruins originally bought low on Thomas, signing him to a deal that paid a million bucks a year.  That contract was one of the biggest bargains in NHL history, as he went on to win a Vezina Trophy.  In terms of selling, his stock is not going to get higher than it is now.  There's just no possible way that he's going to continue playing this well. 

Here's the problem with that perspective, though: people aren't stocks. 

From an asset management perspective, trading Thomas is the right move.  I will not dispute this.  We know Tuukka Rask can be a top 10 goaltender, and so if you can turn a hot player into an asset, and manage your salary cap, you need to do it.  But from a team harmony perspective, it's absolutely the wrong move. 

When a team is playing as well as the Bruins are right now, there's an understandable reluctance to rock the boat.  If you guys have read my stuff enough, you know that I love numbers.  I think statistical analysis in hockey is dramatically underrated, and I think that Puck Prospectus is pretty much the best $20 that a hockey fan can spend.  But it doesn't tell the whole story.  There's indisputably a team element and a chemistry element to team sports.  I think that element is dramatically overrated; I want to punch someone every time I hear the words "Proven Veteran".  I think a GM should be fired for incompetence if he says a phrase like "he doesn't put up the numbers but he's a great locker room presence" to defend something like the Rob Niedermayer signing.  But still, that element is there, and if it should be discounted, it cannot be ignored.

By trading Thomas, one runs the risk of upsetting the balance on a team that is playing extremely good hockey.  It would probably make Rask happy, though he's been a good soldier so far, but you'd hear words like "blindsided" thrown around in interviews afterward, and that's pretty much always a bad sign.  As the saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". 

The Bruins are playing excellent hockey in pretty much every department.  There are no glaring holes on the team; the addition of Nathan Horton and the return to health of Milan Lucic have made the top line a potent offensive force once again.  The strong play of rookies Tyler Seguin and Jordan Caron have dramatically aided the secondary scoring.  The defense is not letting good shots get put on net.  The argument for trading Thomas might be stronger if there was a glaring hole on the team, but there's not. By keeping him, even when his play backslides (that's a when, not an if), the Bruins are all but assured of having the best goaltending in the NHL from night to night.  With a slate of 16 games in 29 nights coming up, both Rask and Thomas will be getting some work.  Where most teams suffer a major decline when their backup comes in (see also: last night's game), the Bruins should be assured of a top-flight goaltending performance every night.  That's a huge advantage in the short term.  In the long term, it's less important than another top 4 defenseman or top 6 forward, but if you're looking to win now, and don't have holes, it has plenty of value.

The best argument for trading Thomas is asset management.  But sometimes the "win now" approach has to trump the "asset management" approach.  If a hole opens up, trading Thomas would have to on the short list of options to consider.  But for now, there's not enough argument for rocking the boat.  Ask the Chicago Blackhawks if they'd have been better off avoiding the "win now" approach in favor of an "asset management" approach. 

I'm guessing they'll collectively flash their Stanley Cup rings in response. 

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