Tim Thomas has always marched to his own beat, alone on an island even inside a crowded locker room.
But now it appears the Bruins netminder could be about to make his separation from the team much more literal.
After reports began to surface Thursday that Thomas was contemplating sitting out the upcoming season, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli confirmed the goalie’s intentions in a conference call Friday afternoon.
A final decision has not been made and Chiarelli has not yet discussed setting a deadline for Thomas to make that decision, but the GM is proceeding with his offseason team-building on the assumption that Thomas will not be playing.
So what happens with Thomas?
If he chooses to sit out, Chiarelli said the Bruins will suspend him. He won’t get paid the $3 million salary he’s due to earn, but his $5 million cap hit will remain on the Bruins’ cap. That will have a major impact on what the Bruins can do in free agency, even if Chiarelli is confident he can cover the bulk of that dead money by placing Marc Savard and his $4 million cap hit on long-term injured reserve for some cap relief.
But Thomas risks paying an even steeper price. At 38, he doesn’t have much time left playing at this level. He had to battle his way to the NHL with a long and arduous journey through multiple minor leagues and several seasons in Europe before finally getting his break with the Bruins in the 2005-06 season.
He’s since established himself as one of the elite netminders in the NHL, winning a pair of Vezina Trophies and a Conn Smythe as playoff MVP after leading the Bruins to their first Cup in 39 years last spring.
That’s a mighty legacy that he’s risking with this move. He’s already tarnished his image in many eyes with his refusal to accompany his teammates to the White House in January and his controversial Facebook posts, putting his own political agenda ahead of the team.
Sitting out a season could risk even more serious damage to his reputation.
It could also be extremely detrimental to his on-ice performance. Returning from that long a layoff would be a challenge for any player, but someone Thomas’ age would really face an uphill battle getting back into NHL condition.
“It depends on the person,” Chiarelli said. “I think just at first blush it would be hard for a 38-year-old to not play and to come back. I would think that.”
Chiarelli did say that Thomas still hoped to play again, though returning to the NHL wasn’t his biggest concern.
“He’s told me he wants to play in the Olympics the following year,” Chiarelli said of the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
That could be problematic for Thomas, who earned a silver medal in Vancouver in 2010 while serving as Ryan Miller‘s backup. Not only would Thomas be hard-pressed to get back to the level of play needed to earn a spot on the Olympic team, but he also has to face even tougher competition with the emergence of young American netminders like Jonathan Quick, Cory Schneider and Jimmy Howard along with Miller. And that’s not even factoring in whether Team USA will even consider having Thomas represent the nation again after the way he disrespected the office of the Presidency.
Thomas also may not get to choose where he plays if he does return to the NHL, as the Bruins can suspend him and toll his contract, leaving him still owing the team the final year on his contract and unable to sign with another team.
Chiarelli, who was informed of Thomas’ potential sabbatical through the netminder’s agent in May, stated that family concerns and exhaustion were the reasons Thomas cited for potentially taking the year off, and the GM told reporters not to expect Thomas to offer much in the way of any public statements to clarify his thought process.
“What I can tell you is he’s not going to comment on it,” Chiarelli said. “He may post something at some point on his Facebook.”
Thomas’ Facebook postings created quite a stir this past season, as he used that forum to attempt to explain his White House boycott. That decision disappointed many within the organization, and Thomas sitting out the upcoming season would be frustrating as well. But Chiarelli is willing to accept Thomas’reasons and move on.
“I’m a little disappointed, more than a little,” Chiarelli said. “I’m disappointed, but these things happen and you have roll with them. You’ve got to deal with them. When someone talks about their family and stuff like that, you have to respect that.”
Chiarelli also noted that Thomas said he was very tired after last year’s Cup run and after this past season, again said that he was definitely worn down a bit.
“I just think with all the stuff that’s gone on in the last couple years with playing and all the other appearances and the fame that goes with winning, I think he’s a little worn down,” Chiarelli said.
If that really is the only motivation for this proposed hiatus, the break could actually be good for Thomas. But he runs the risk of hurting his chances of returning to his elite level of play if and when he does want to come back to the NHL, and he may find himself returning to a very different reception than he’s become accustomed to as a Stanley Cup hero.