For goalies in their late 20s that still haven’t cracked the NHL, the Tim Thomas story is something to aspire to.
The University of Vermont product was a ninth-round pick in 1994 — a round that doesn’t even exist anymore — and aside from a four game stint with Boston in 2002-03, he didn’t really break into the league until he was 30.
At a time when most goaltenders would have been on the decline, he got better. At a time when most goalies would be entering the twilight of their careers, he was winning Vezinas, a Conn Smythe and a Stanley Cup.
Then, everything changed.
He remained a solid on the ice, but his off-ice decisions starting catching people’s attention. After a dramatic year that included balking on the White House, a series of controversial Facebook postings and a terse relationship with the media, he decided to take a year off citing reasons of family, friends, and faith.
Thomas hasn’t said that he’s retiring but, given his age, coming back would be a tremendous challenge — even for someone with his history of overcoming them.
So if we have in fact heard the last of him, what’s his legacy?
He still has a year left on his contract, so his final gift to (or curse) the Boston Bruins will be his $5 million annual cap hit. They can try to trade that away to a team that wants to get over the cap floor, but they could also be saddled with it heading into a season with great CBA uncertainty.
In the long run, do an athlete’s final acts color their overall contributions? In five or 10 years, will people be sour for how Thomas left Boston, or will they celebrate his career as a whole?
Thomas might have been a distraction in 2011-12 and his actions will hurt the Bruins in 2012-13. Even then, he’s given the team and city a lot — they would have been worse off had he decided in his late 20s that this hockey thing was never going to work out. The argument could be made the 2011 Stanley Cup doesn’t happen without Thomas between the pipes.
Now, the man who served as his backup for three years — Tuukka Rask — will take over. If his career to this point is any indication, he’ll be able to make this transition as painless as possible, but it’ll be difficult given how acrimonious Thomas’ departure was.