Tim Thomas: Assessing the Legacy of Former Bruins Goalie
Earlier this season, the Boston Bruins parted ways with a player who spent eight years making fans hold their breath, experience heart palpitations, cry tears of joy and scratch their heads in disbelief.
Tim Thomas is headed to New York to become a member of the Islanders. The B's will get a conditional second-round pick in return; that is, the pick will only be given to Boston if Thomas either plays a game for the Islanders or is traded by the club.
But let's forget the details of the trade and focus on the player.
Tim Thomas is a Michigan boy who played his college hockey right here in New England at the University of Vermont. Thomas always believed that he was NHL material, but it wasn't until the goaltender was 28 years old that he finally made his NHL debut with Boston.
October 19, 2002. Thomas stopped 31 of 34 shots fired by the Edmonton Oilers in his first career victory. Eleven days later, he stopped 33 of 35 pucks against the Washington Capitals for his second win in as many chances. But that would be his last action until April, when he went 1-1 in two more starts to round out his campaign.
Thomas didn't see the ice again at the NHL level until the 2005-2006 season. It was January 10, 2006, nearly three years since his last appearance with the Bruins. And as luck would have it, he gave up one goal on seven shots in a relief appearance against the Sharks. That goal was the game-winner, and Thomas was handed the loss.
At this point in the goaltender's career, all hope may have been lost.
Thomas was 31 years old the day of that game in 2006, and he was set to turn 32 in April. He'd never sustained any work in the NHL, having appeared in just five games.
He had been battling, and would continue to battle, for starting nods against the likes of Andrew Raycroft, Hannu Toivonen, Manny Fernandez and eventually Tuukka Rask.
After all, why would the Bruins commit to a 30-something goalie with so much promising young talent in the mix?
Peter Chiarelli—who was hired as the Bruins' general manager in May of 2006—had figured it out.
He realized that Raycroft, Toivonen and Fernandez weren't keepers. He shipped Andrew Raycroft to Toronto for Tuukka Rask before the 2006 entry draft.
How about that trade, eh?
The following season, Thomas played in a career-high 66 games for the Bruins in what marked the moment that Boston put their faith in the journeyman.
In that same off-season, the Bruins—technically being managed by interim GM Jeff Gorton at the time—reeled in what became one of the franchise's biggest free agent signings in history. The club inked Zdeno Chara, previously of the Ottawa Senators (the same team that Chiarelli had been working for) to a five-year, $37.5 million deal.
Chara, as you know, has worked out.
Back to Thomas.
The goaltender played well in his first two seasons as the number one, but it wasn't until his third season that he really began to write his legacy.
In the 2008-09 season, Thomas was downright spectacular in a Vezina trophy-winning campaign. He posted a 36-11-7 record, a 2.10 goals against average and a 0.933 saves percentage.
The Bruins fell short in the playoffs, though, in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes.
The following season, we got another one of those messages that it just might not be in the cards for Thomas to reach sustained stardom.
After starting the season as the club's top goaltender, young sensation Tuukka Rask seized the starting job from him. Rask had only appeared in five NHL games prior to the start of that season, but his numbers justified the switch. Tuukka posted a 22-12-5 record with a gaudy 0.931 saves percentage and a microscopic 1.97 goals against average.
The latter two statistics led the NHL.
His collapse, though, came in an infamous series against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Boston had a 3-0 series lead, and... well, need we revisit history? I think not.
Nonetheless, Rask was the starter.
The key piece of the trade that opened the door for Thomas in Boston had come back a few years later to seemingly close it. Tuukka was the franchise goalie, and that was that. Thomas would be a backup for what was left of his wacky, roller-coaster career. That's what any sane person would have thought, anyway.
At the start of the next season, Rask was the definite starter, fresh off a stellar campaign riddled by a haunting Game 7 loss. Thomas was the backup. The exact opposite circumstances from the previous season's beginning.
And, quite eerily, the season progressed in a similar way as well.
Thomas stole the starting job from Rask—at no great fault of the young goaltender—when he stood on his head game after game en route to establishing the Bruins as a powerhouse. Chiarelli had finally built a winning formula with a few years in the business, and the wild style of Thomas seemed to perfectly complement his squad.
In one of the best regular seasons a goaltender has ever had—ignoring the historic playoff run that awaited—Thomas posted a 35-11-9 record with a 0.938 saves percentage and a 2.00 goals against average.
He had nine shutouts.
I won't get cliché and start poetically depicting the Stanley Cup run that ensued, but you all know the story's ending.
Thomas won the Conn Smythe trophy with ease in the 2011 playoffs, posting an absurdly impressive 0.940 saves percentage and 1.97 goals against average. He went 16-9 in those 25 games, posting four shutouts and winning three Game 7s.
The following season was a struggle filled with controversies, quirks and disappointments, and it was the final season Thomas would ever play for the Bruins.
That isn't what I wish to focus on, though.
This goaltender deserves better than that. This goaltender deserves to have his best moments discussed, not his worst.
Tiny Thompson. Frank Brimsek. Gerry Cheevers. Tim Thomas.
Those were the goaltenders for the Bruins in their six Stanley Cup championship seasons. Brimsek and Cheevers each won it twice. Thompson and Thomas won it once.
And whether old-timers want to admit it or not, our weird, anti-Obama, crazy-flopping goaltender of the new age belongs right in the mix with those other guys as one of the best Bruins goalies of all-time.
Of all six winning teams, Thomas's team snapped the longest drought in the franchise's history. It had been 39 years since the Bruins had won a Stanley Cup, and Timmy put the team on his back for an entire season.
He may not have won as many Cups as Brimsek or Cheevers, but one could argue it may have been the best performance in the most significant win of the six.
When it comes to individual accolades, Thomas reeled in two Vezina trophies. Tiny Thompson collected four during his tenure with the Bruins, Brimsek gathered two, and Cheevers didn't win one.
For his career, Thomas showcases a goals against average of 2.48. While that is a far cry from Tiny Thompson's 2.08 career GAA, it remains better than the 2.70 and the 2.89 averages held by Brimsek and Cheevers, respectively.
Thomas has a career saves percentage of 0.921, but saves percentage wasn't consistently calculated during the careers of the other three goalies.
I cannot sit here and argue that Tim Thomas is the best goalie of all-time. I can't even argue confidently that he is the best to ever wear the "spoked B" on his chest.
But what is undeniable is that he belongs in the conversation.
He belongs in the same class as those Bruins' greats, regardless of his quirky antics off the ice. He acted up a bit in his final days in Boston, but consider the bigger picture.
Consider what the man has been through.
He will be 39 years old in April. He fought until he was 31 just to get a legitimate shot in the NHL. Most goalies would call it quits. Most athletes would call it quits.
Lingering in the minors is no fun, especially when you're the only one in the locker room who is almost a decade removed from college.
Thomas stuck with it. He never gave up.
And pardon me if I'm over simplifying, but Bruins fans ought to be damn happy he never gave up. Because if he had, that Stanley Cup drought would be approaching 41 years this spring.
Tim Thomas may never play a game for the Islanders. He may never play another game in the NHL. But as we begin the post-Thomas era, choose not to reflect on his actions in politics, the media or anything else.
Instead, reflect on his actions on the ice.
Those are the ones that made him an ever-lasting piece of Bruins history.
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