A starting goaltender getting pulled from a game isn’t exactly a huge story. It happens. We are all bound to have our off nights, but when you are the reigning Vezina Trophy winner starting for the reigning Stanley Cup champion, getting yanked from a tie game might lead one to think a little.
That was Tim Thomas’ Saturday night in Columbus, as the Boston Bruins goaltender got the hook after the second period with the game tied 3-3. Coach’s decision.
Onto itself, we probably should not read too much into this one moment. Thomas was not having his best night against the Blue Jackets and his performance did not cost the Bruins as they went on to a 5-3 win. Is it, however, indicative of a larger problem?
Is Tim Thomas playing too much?
Prior to the start of the season, I detailed how one of the keys for the Bruins to be successful this year would be for Tim Thomas to play less. The crux of my argument was because of his age the Bruins simply could not ask Thomas to carry the team the way he did all of last season. If the team wanted to replicate the kind of success they had last year, they had to save the reigning Conn Smythe winner so he would be fresh at the most crucial times of the season.
So far, that prediction has not quite come to fruition. Thomas’ 19 starts through the Bruins’ first 28 games this season are all of one less than through the first 28 last season. What is more, Thomas has statistically been better than he was during his historic 2010-2011 season. Though he has one less win this season (14-2-3 at this point last year to this season’s 13-5-0), Thomas’ .938 save percentage is equal to that which he posted last season when he set an NHL record in that category. His 1.92 goals against average, currently third in the NHL, is 0.08 better than it was when he led the league last year at 2.00. Hard for the Bruins brass to keep Thomas on the bench when he is replicating a historic performance.
There is no doubt Thomas is still the better of the two Boston netminders, but the counterargument that back-up Tuukka Rask still needs to play more can still be used. Though he still struggles to find complete consistency in his back-up role, like his battery mate, Rask is also having a better year statistically than he did through this point last season. The 24-year old Fin has posted a 2.01 goals against average and .930 save percentage so far this year, which rank sixth and 10th in the NHL, respectively, compared to the .918 and 2.67 totals he put up last season.
Was Saturday night’s breakdown a symptom of Thomas showing his age? Without access to the Bruins’ training records, Thomas’ physical condition is something of a mystery, but it is an idea that is not too difficult to believe. The fact remains that at 37-years old, Thomas is the fifth oldest goalie in the NHL behind, Dwayne Roloson (42), Martin Brodeur (39), Nikolai Khabibulin (38) and Johan Hedberg (38) and only Thomas and Khabibulin are making any sort of real impact this year. Thomas may be Superman to the faithful of the Black-and-Gold, but the tales of Superman are myth and not reality. The Bruins cannot continue to test reality and push the envelope with Thomas’ mortality.
Age will eventually catch up with him. If his struggles against the Blue Jackets did come as a result of over taxation (the Bruins are in a stretch that will see them play seven games in 14 days), better to not rest Thomas more now, early in the season, than have that mortality sneak up on him in April, May and June when the team needs to be at their best?
The Bruins are a team built on the strength of their defense and their goaltending. Their success in those areas is tantamount to the overall success of the team and the Bruins need to become smarter about protecting an asset as valuable as Thomas. He has earned his deserving place as starter during his tenure in Boston as he has blossomed from journeyman, to reliable goaltender, to amongst the top of the NHL’s goaltending ranks. Playing Thomas less than his current overload should not be seen as a knock against his ability, but a testament to his importance to the team.
There are a number of positive side effects from playing Thomas less that have been seemingly ignored. More Rask is not just good because it saves Thomas’ legs, but Rask has always been a goaltender who plays better the more consistently he plays. More starts mean not just better play from the back-up and, therefore, the team in general, but also better development for their Goaltender of the Future.
Even if Tim Thomas is Superman, no hero ever walks his journey alone.
About the Author
Written by Matt Preston
I'm no Heminway or Haggerty, but keeping the dream alive, even if I'm pretty sure my Nana is my only follower. Self-deprecation is key, grammar is optional.