Thomas may have made that a moot point while creating a host of new problems for the team, after general manager Peter Chiarelli revealed on Friday that Thomas is likely to sit out the upcoming season.
Chiarelli, who had said after Boston’s playoff exit that he was not inclined to trade Thomas even though the goalie’s no-trade clause expires on July 1, now may not have that option anyway. Even with Thomas’ remarkable success in recent years, the market was going to be limited for a 38-year-old goalie with just one year left on his contract to begin with. Now add in the fact that Thomas could very well not report to any team that acquires him, and expecting any kind of significant return for the two-time Vezina winner seems far-fetched.
“Obviously it diminishes any leverage you would have,” Chiarelli said in a conference call. “But I tell you what, he’s a world-class goalie, so he’d help somebody in a big way if he decided to play.”
But that decision is now up to Thomas. The power has shifted from the team to the player. Instead of getting a solid asset in return for Thomas, the Bruins may have to settle for just trying to find a way to clear his $5 million cap hit off their books.
That hit will still count against the cap even if Thomas sits out and is suspended. He won’t see any of that salary, but the team can’t use it to sign any other players.
That could force the Bruins to more radical moves. They could put him on waivers after his no-movement clause expires. They would get nothing in return if claimed, but the cap hit would be gone. They could also trade him for little or no return, similar to the Marco Sturm deal to Los Angeles in December 2010. The Bruins traded the wing to the Kings for “future considerations,” which Chiarelli immediately revealed in the news conference announcing the deal would amount to “nothing.”
Who would be in the market for Thomas even at that price? How about a team struggling to get to the salary cap floor? That $5 million toward the cap would look very nice for a team like that, especially since it would be $5 million on the cap without having to spend a single actual dollar if Thomas sits out.
“That would be something we’d look at,” Chiarelli said. “You do have that flexibility and there is the element of teams trying to reach the floor, the salary floor.”
Even if the Bruins aren’t able to get another team to take Thomas off their hands, and off their books, Chiarelli is confident he will have enough cap space to put together the roster he wants.
“We’re not seriously cramped from the cap perspective,” Chiarelli said. “We’ve got Marc Savard [to put] on [long-term injured reserve]. He’s at 4 [million], Tim’s at 5, so do the math, maybe you’re a million short. So we’re not seriously disabled there.”
Savard is not expected to play again as he continues to suffer from post-concussion symptoms. The Bruins did not put him on LTIR last year as they did not need the extra cap space, but that option is available in the coming season.
It also helps that the Bruins already have two solid goalies in place with Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin. Rask has long been waiting patiently to take over for Thomas, and appears now will get that chance.
He actually supplanted Thomas once already, taking over as starter in 2009-10 and leading the league in both goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931). Rask (11-8-3, 2.05 GAA, .929 save percentage) also put up better numbers than Thomas (35-19-1, 2.36 GAA, .920 save percentage) this past season before Rask suffered a groin/abdominal injury in early March.
Khudobin, meanwhile, has had limited exposure in the NHL, but has thrived when he has played. He’s 5-1-0 with a 1.32 GAA and a .961 save percentage in seven games, including a 44-save effort in a 3-1 win in Ottawa in his lone appearance for the Bruins in April. He is on a one-way deal for the upcoming season, and Thomas’ absence erases one potential headache with the risk of exposing him to waivers to be sent down if Thomas and Rask remained the tandem in Boston.
“We have two capable goalies in Tuukka and Khudobin,” Chiarelli said. “So I’d be more than satisfied if that’s who we have to go with.”
There’s still one problem with that scenario. Rask is a restricted free agent, and if he is definitely going to be the No. 1 goalie next year with Thomas out of the picture one way or another, then the price to re-sign Rask will go up significantly.
The Bruins and Rask will reach a deal. He’s too important to their future and now their present not to come to terms, but spending more on him now limits the funds available to use on other key free agents, whether it’s retaining the club’s own players like Chris Kelly or adding help from outside the organization after July 1.
Thomas’ decision to potentially take a sabbatical hasn’t crippled the Bruins by any means, but it will definitely sting a bit and limit some of the options available to Chiarelli this offseason.