This is the third in a week-long series on what the Bruins need to do this offseason. Today's entry: Is it time to say goodbye to Tim Thomas and give Tuukka Rask a chance to be the no. 1 goalie in town?
The just-concluded Bruins season may become known as the year the goaltending torch finally began passing from one netminder to the other.
Tim Thomas had a rather ordinary .922 save percentage during the season, and ranked 11th in save percentage among playoff goaltenders when the Bruins were eliminated by the Capitals. For a folk hero goalie from hardscrabble Flint, Michigan that willed himself into a Conn Smythe winner and two-time Vezina Trophy honoree, this past year was a far cry from Thomas at his award-winning best.
Add the fact hes 38 years old entering this summer and the individual stink bomb dropped on the season by skipping a White House visit in the middle of the year. Those factors combined with his 5 million cap hit may help lead to a split from his Bruins employers this summer, and a divorce from a player thats become more aging nuisance than dominant performer.
That must be weighed against the value of a motivated Thomas coming back to prove everybody wrong in Boston next season. But the bizarre separation of himself from the rest of the team in his post-Game 7 statements and his hesitating, halting answers when asked if he wants to remain a member of the Bruins belie a player that truly wants to remain in Black and Gold.
Peter Chiarelli and Cam Neely, for their part, are keeping a solid, unified front stating that Thomas wont be moved before next season.
"I dont think any of us expected him to have the same numbers as he did last year. That was a world-class year. It would be really hard to expect him to have the same numbers, said Chiarelli. Were very happy with our goalies. We have two strong goalies in both Tim and Tuukka. I think a lot of teams are probably envious of what we have here. Its an area were we feel pretty comfortable.
Theres no way to tell if thats posturing for trade value or legitimate sentiment, but the feeling around the NHL is the aging netminder will be dealt over the summer.
It certainly should be explored with his no-trade protection gone as of July 1. Theres no doubting a trade market exists for the two-time Vezina winner if the Bruins are inspired to move him.
Nobody would be uttering a word of this if Thomas rose to the occasion and dominated while throwing the Bruins on his back just as he did last year.
But thats not what happened.
Instead the Bruins need to find out what 25-year-old Tuukka Rask can do when charged with a starting goaltenders workload.
Rask was 11-8-3 and finished with a better save percentage (.929) and goals against average than Thomas this season, but his lean body broke down in March when the Bruins needed him most.
That forced Thomas to play 16 games in a row down the stretch, and might have contributed to the aging goaltenders uneven performance come playoff-time. The Bruins netminder finished 11th in save percentage among the field of playoff goaltenders this year, and faltered badly in the third period of Game 5 when the Bruins could have built up a 3-2 lead in the series.
Instead Thomas coughed up a pair of soft goals, and the Bruins allowed the Capitals to hang around before eventually dropping the series in overtime of Game 7.
Questions remain whether Rask can be a franchise goaltender capable of playing 60 games a season. Those will never be answered as long as Thomas remains in the picture with Boston, and is effectively - and unintentionally - blocking Tuukkas full development.
So whats the best plan for the future?
How about dealing Thomas for the top-nine forward that Chiarelli is already on the search for, and using the significant, vacated cap space to chase after a big ticket free agent need like Zach Parise or Ryan Suter?
The Bruins might not get the power play-boosting sniper or PP quarterback they lust after in fair trade for a 38-year-old goaltender thats suddenly taken on a devotion to Facebook and political causes. But they would clear off enough space to give them more than 10 million in cap space to accomplish everything on their offseason check list.
That means bringing in a key free agent and signing Rask before hes allowed to dip his toes into restricted free agency over the summer.
There may be a healthy leap of faith handing the goaltending duties to a tandem of Rask and Anton Khudobin, but it could make the Bruins and their pathetic power play - better all-around in the long run. It could also blow up in Bostons face if the Bruins send him to another playoff contender, and Thomas channels his anger and hard feelings into the kind of superior hockey campaign he may still be capable of.
At a certain point, though, the Bruins have to maximize their assets and turn things over to the new generation of Bs players.
Thats the name of the game for a Bruins team hoping to once again raise the Cup in the near future.