BOSTON (CBS) — Remember the not-so-long-ago days when NHL teams weren’t putting a premium on world-class goaltending and thought that they could win the Stanley Cup with Antti Niemi, Brian Boucher or any palooka out of the Federal League?
Then Tim Thomas won the Cup – defeating Roberto Luongo – and Philadelphia threw the state GDP of Pennsylvania at Ilya Bryzgalov. It took just one year for the pendulum to shift many teams’ thinking and leave those two separate camps – teams that wanted only the best in their crease and those hoping for “Antti Niemi Part II.”
Well if last year’s netminder battle didn’t convince the teams hedging their goaltending bets, this season’s Cup semifinals is definitely the final verdict – you need all-world goaltending to win.
As if we needed to be reminded, the performances of Jonathan Quick, Mike Smith, Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Brodeur have reinforced the notion that the Bruins are in a magnificent position in terms of goaltending and can take a couple different paths in the near future to aid their return to elite status in the league.
In capturing the Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy last season, Thomas posted a .940 save percentage – actually bettering his then-single-season record (since broken by St. Louis’ Brian Elliott this season) of .938 from the regular season. Now, through two games of the Eastern Conference final and three games of the Western series, check out these postseason save percentage numbers:
Quick (Los Angeles) – .951
Smith (Phoenix) – .942
Lundqvist (New York) – .937
Brodeur (New Jersey) – .921
Those left shaking their head over Thomas’ remarkable Cup run must be ready to put their head through a wall (or the end glass) trying to fathom how – and the numbers plus the contortionist-like saves being made back this up – there are actually four guys playing like 2011 Tim Thomas in these playoffs. Headfirst dives, skate saves, back-of-the-leg blocks – if you blink you’re going to miss a great save and you’ll only get to see another failed shooter shaking his head.
As I watch these four teams, I wonder a couple of things with regard to the Bruins. First, I wonder what Thomas can get the Bruins on the trade market. I’m not going to devote a lot of energy repeating my arguments for general manager Peter Chiarelli at least entertaining offers. After I wrote that, I had some readers ready to pack Thomas’ bags and maybe a few more wanting me traded.
But look at what Brodeur is doing at 40 and think to yourself, “What can Tim Thomas do at 38, 39, 40 … or beyond?” I’m sure several goaltending-hungry GMs around the league are thinking that right now. Thomas carries a $5 million cap hit into the final year of his contract. Maybe he’d be willing to sacrifice some cash for even longer-term security from the Bruins or another club. That’s why it might be wise for the Bruins to ink Thomas to an extension even before they decide whether they want to keep him around beyond this season. He could stay at a cap-friendly salary or help someone else at the same rate. A lot of Boston’s flexibility in that situation will depend on what goes down with Tuukka Rask’s new contract.
Of course, there’s another school of thought when it comes to Thomas. Everyone knows how motivated he has been by failure and criticism. It might be amazing to watch how he comes back after the Bruins’ disastrous first-round defeat. I think he might be sitting home watching Brodeur and be thinking, “I want to be even better than that as I close in on Brodeur’s age.” He has to marvel at Quick’s play and think, “Well, everyone think he’s the best U.S.-born goaltender on Earth, but I’m going to take that moniker back in 2012-13.” Not to mention, Thomas will have the usual motivating factor of playing for a new contract with summer free agency just months away.
Thomas has never lacked for outside inspiration. Now, his cup might be overflowing, and an extra-inspired Thomas might be just what the Bruins need to get closer to the Cup by this time next season.