Coming off a Vezina Trophy-winning campaign and fresh off signing a four-year, $20 million extension, expectations were high for the Bruins' netminder. But things came crashing down quickly for Thomas, who lost his starting spot to rookie sensation Tuukka Rask and battled through a nagging hip injury that eventually required offseason surgery.
That was followed by a summer full of trade rumors and speculation, though the trade talk has died down and Thomas appears almost certain to begin another season in Boston when camp opens next month. Thomas is also on track to be ready for the start of camp, as he revealed last week to The Boston Globe that he is ahead of schedule in his recovery from the May surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip.
So what can the Bruins expect from Thomas this year? Will the decline continue as age and injuries take their toll? Or will Thomas bounce back, challenge Rask for his old starting spot and quiet his critics once again?
Thomas, 36, certainly believes it will be the latter. He was asked at the club's breakup day in May following the playoff loss to Philadelphia if anyone should be surprised if he reclaimed the No. 1 job this year.
"No, especially knowing me," replied Thomas. "They know that no matter where I'm at or what's going on that I'm going to be competing. If you look over the course of my career, every time I've had some sort of setback, I've come back even stronger. I think that's what people should plan on. That's what I plan on."
Thomas has certainly defied the skeptics throughout a rather remarkable pro career. The former University of Vermont star spent eight seasons toiling in the minors and Europe, playing for nine teams in five leagues before getting his first extended look in the NHL at 31 with the Bruins in 2006. He proved his unorthodox style could stop pucks at the NHL level over the next four seasons, culminating in his breakthrough campaign in 2008-09.
That helped convince Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli to reward Thomas with his first big-money deal that April, and Chiarelli is still confident that Thomas can push Rask and make both of them better through such competition.
"I'm comfortable with our goaltending duo," said Chiarelli earlier this summer. "There will be an intense competition I know, and that's the way we had planned it. I'm comfortable with it and I'm not saying it's going to end up that way, but I'm certainly comfortable with it if it is."
Chiarelli would likely still be willing to move Thomas in the right deal considering the club's current cap situation, but any trade talks are complicated by the no-movement clause in Thomas' contract. Thomas never waived that clause, though Chiarelli did give agent Bill Zito permission to speak with other teams to lay the groundwork for any potential deal.
"I want to set the record straight on that," Chiarelli told reporters at the draft in Los Angeles, when trade rumors first surfaced. "Tim, in no way, has ever asked to be traded. Tim wants to be a Boston Bruin. What I did was I talked to Bill at some point after the season. I said, 'Bill, look. We're in a position here where there will be some teams coming forward and will ask about Tim. At some point, if deals become realistic, you and I have to work together. Tim and his family, we all have to work together, completely transparent. So let me give you an e-mail giving permission to talk to these teams if they call you.' That's all it was. There's no overt effort to trade Tim. There's no request by Tim. Tim wants to be a Boston Bruin."
That's not necessarily a bad thing as Thomas wasn't exactly horrible in his "down year" last season. Despite his hip problems, he still managed a solid 2.56 GAA, which ranked 16th in the league, and a .915 save percentage, which was 15th in the NHL. His five shutouts also tied for seventh. His problem was that those numbers paled in comparison to Rask's league-leading stats (1.97 GAA, .931 save percentage) and also didn't measure up to his own NHL-best totals (2.10 GAA, .933 save percentage) from the previous season.
While it will be an uphill struggle to wrest the starting job back from Rask, Thomas isn't necessarily eager to waive his no-trade clause just for the possibility of starting somewhere else. Other considerations beyond playing time can be equally important.
"That's why you get those put in your contract," said Thomas of the no-trade clause. "It's a luxury that you earn. It's nice to have, in some circumstances, some sort of control, because it isn't all about hockey and what happens at this hockey rink. There are a lot of other factors in every decision that people make. Not just you guys but us guys too. I have a family. I have kids in school. I have other things to think of, so having that kind of control of a no-trade clause is comforting."
Thomas is also comfortable working with Rask, despite the fact that they are battling for the same job.
"I've been fortunate throughout the course of my career to play with a lot of great guys as far as goaltenders go, and Tuukka ranks right up there with the best of them," said Thomas at the end of last year. "He's a good person. We've been good friends throughout this whole thing. We never let that drive a wedge in between our relationship."
The friendly rivals will be battling each other again this fall. Rask doesn't appear likely to give up the No. 1 role any time soon, but who would have predicted reigning Vezina winner Thomas losing his job last year? If Rask does stumble in his sophomore season, the Bruins just might be glad that Thomas has stuck around after all.
NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.
Tuesday, Aug. 10: What are the key training camp battles to watch?
Thursday, Aug. 12: is David Krejci ready to be a No. 1 center?