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The End of a Legend…?

Posted By Matt Preston On May 10 2012 @ 11:29 pm In Boston Bruins | No Comments

One of the first pre-game notes I took prior to the Boston Bruins Game 7 loss to the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals a few weeks back was “Does the result of this game control the fate of Tim Thomas in Boston?”

The Capitals beat the Bruins in overtime and, even though the NHL’s off-season has not technically begun, the most prevalent question that is being asked about the Boston Bruins thus far is what will the team do about their goaltending situation in the summer months?

The Bruins bowed out to the Capitals in embarrassing fashion and Thomas let up some soft goals along the way, but fault for the Bruins’ first round exit does not rest on the shoulders of their starting goaltender. He was by no means as good as he was when he carried the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 2011, but it was a pipe dream to think Thomas, who turned 38 during this year’s playoffs, could replicate that performance. His 2.14 goals against average and .923 save percentage, down from 1.98 and .940, respectively, in 2011, however, do indicate that the aging vet came pretty close to his Conn Smythe level.

The loss in the game and the series, onto itself, may not signal Thomas’ departure. Probably is better said a win and deep playoff run with Thomas between the pipes would have guaranteed him another season as Boston’s starter. The argument about whether or not Thomas will finish out his contract with the Bruins by donning Black-and-Gold for one last season in 2012-2013, however, has nothing to do with statistics and performance. It isn’t really even about Thomas himself.

Despite his advanced age by the time he got to Boston, Tim Thomas grew up before our eyes and earned a special place in the hearts of the Bruins faithful. From journeyman to serviceable goaltender to folk hero to legend, the Michigan native has had an unprecedented run since he started taking a regular turn in the Boston crease in 2005 and his achievements and success story have been well chronicled in the process. The man should never have to buy himself a beer again in the state of Massachusetts.

What Thomas has done for the Bruins franchise is incalculable. He has been the face of the team throughout their resurgence over the past decade from after-though to prominence, his story embodying the mystique of the Boston Bruins. Thomas is deserving of all the accolades and those who will inevitably clamor for him to stay in the Boston net are not wrong for thinking so. Based on the way he played this season, it is safe to say Thomas has at least one, maybe even two more productive seasons in him. There should even be a handful of times in that span he should be able to throw the team on his back and carry them like he did in 2011. Why would a team that will go into next season as a Stanley Cup contender run that guy out of town?

In the days following the loss to Washington when the questions started to mount about the Bruins parting ways with Thomas, team president Cam Neely went on record saying the team is “very happy with [their] goalies” and they should be. Since Tuukka Rask became a full-timer on the Bruins roster in 2009, he and Thomas have combined to be what has been arguably the best netminding tandem in the NHL.

This season was the first time since the 2007-2008 season the Bruins were outside the top two in the NHL in goals against average as a team. For three consecutive seasons, from 2008-2011, either Thomas or Rask led the NHL in both goals against average and saver percentage. Thomas also won a pair of Vezina trophies in that span.

You have two goaltenders more than capable of starting in the NHL and playing at a high level, why mess with a good thing?

Because who is better is a matter of opinion and irrelevant. Who is younger and has the longer shelf life in Boston is what is important.

Because one thing Thomas also proved this season is that his best days are behind him and his heir apparent, who has proved himself more than capable to be a starter in the NHL, is about to become a restricted free. The time to start making the transition to Tuukka Rask is now.

The reason Rask has become more important to the Bruins than the mythical Thomas is simply because of the 13 years in age that separate the battery mates and his free agency is forcing the Bruins hand in the matter. Restricted or not, Rask is going to fetch a fair price on the market this summer and deservedly so, and in the world of the salary cap it also means there is a chance the Bruins could find themselves without the young Finn next season.

The decision that is going to be made over the next couple of months, probably the most important and impactful decision on the organization’s future Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli will be making this offseason, is just that. It is not about Thomas, but a business decision about the present and the future. Not so much a decision for next season as it is for the next three to five seasons.

Rask has played the good soldier the past two seasons, but how much longer can Bruins management expect that to last? If Rask were to walk out the door over the summer, the Bruins would survive in the short term with Thomas in 2012-2013. The odds are probably better that Thomas will have the better season of the two next season anyway, no matter where they play. It is hard to believe, however, that Thomas will live to see the 2013-2014 season as a Bruin. If Tuukka walks this summer and Thomas next, there is not a whole lot left in the Bruins pipeline in terms of quality, NHL-ready goaltending and a team with the Stanley Cup credentials of the Bruins cannot sit around and wait for a developing netminder. Just ask Flyers fans.

The future is now for the Boston Bruins. You hate to see Thomas go, but it is time to start placating to Rask. One of the harsh realities of sports that, more often than not, we would prefer to think did not exist.

There is certainly room for both to continue to coexist in Boston for another year. Both are still playing at a high level and the Bruins have enough cap space to start paying Rask good money. Maybe Game 7 did not decide Thomas’ fate in Boston, but it led us to wonder. Maybe it all comes down to whether or not Thomas can play the good soldier role for Rask as his understudy has done for him?

Given all he has accomplished and the fact he still has hockey life left in him, it is hard to believe Thomas would be overly accepting of being pushed to the back-burner, especially after what he has meant to the franchise the past five season. As a team that thrives on chemistry, after rumors surfaced midseason that he was something of a loner in the locker room, a malcontent Thomas could be more than the Bruins can handle. If Thomas plays hardball with the Bruins and the option to move him while he still has value arises, it is a shot the Bruins have to take.

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