While it’s not the prize the Bruins set out to win when the season started, or still have their eyes on two weeks before the playoffs will begin, the William M. Jennings Trophy is well within Boston’s grasp.
After beating New Jersey 1-0 Tuesday night behind Tuukka Rask’s 21 saves, the Bruins are tied with the Devils with at 2.37 goals allowed per game. So while the Stanley Cup is probably a fantasy this spring, a repeat for the Jennings isn’t out of the question for the boys in black and gold – and is probably Boston’s best chance at getting any hardware at the NHL Awards in June.
Considering recent developments, it’s easy to forget that the Bruins’ stellar goals-against total is the product of the league’s best goaltending tandem. And that on a list of weaknesses on the Bruins, goaltending would be dead-last and a round-up of people to blame for their lackluster season wouldn’t include Tuukka Rask or Tim Thomas anywhere but in the last two slots, even after scouts and most of the front-office-personnel.
TSN recently ranked the Bruins’ goaltending as fifth-best in terms of a statistical formula its writers conjured up, and the four teams ahead of Boston were all more-tradition one-goaltender clubs. In terms of teams that split their netminding duties somewhat evenly, only Montreal and Chicago can compare to the Bruins now that Detroit has seemingly committed to Jimmy Howard as the everyday crease-minder. Would anyone take the Carey Price/Jaroslav Halak or Cristobal Huet/Antti Niemi tandems over the Rask-Tim Thomas combo for the here and now, never mind the next couple seasons?
One could make the case for Price-Halak as the better duo, but the Canadiens’ inability to put any distance between them and the Bruins and Halak’s midseason lamenting about playing time all prove how difficult life can be with two young, up-and-coming goaltenders. The Bruins, on the other hand, have the perfect combination of a goaltender that’s young enough to lead them for the better part of the next decade and the aging Vezina Trophy-winner that doesn’t grouse over playing time and can carry the load over a long haul in case of emergency.
Despite recent developments and many Bruins observers’ decision to take up Thomas-bashing as a new hobby (replacing Jacobs bashing, Chara bashing and Chiarelli bashing as a pastime, at least for the time being), you can’t ignore that Boston is where it is in terms of goals allowed because of both Rask and Thomas. Rask, who should be garnering more Calder Trophy talk than he is, has been sensational as a rookie not just in terms of numbers – 2.02 GAA, .929 save percentage, five shutouts – but in terms of his poise and his ability to handle the rigors of the NHL. However, two thirds of the league would line up to have a goaltender that has five shutouts, a 2.55 GAA and .915 save percentage, and that guy’s name would be Tim Thomas.
It’s hard to pinpoint when it became fashionable to knock Thomas. Why Thomas’ three goals, including two deflected off Dennis Wideman, Monday were any more egregious than the four Rask allowed to Tampa Bay, including two he should’ve stopped, is beyond my comprehension. But the numbers don’t lie. Thomas hasn’t been air-tight this season after a dream year like last. However, that doesn’t mean he should be thrown out onto Causeway Street or locked away in his North Shore home.
The opinion that Thomas is a tad overpaid is justified, especially if the current trend continues this season and beyond that Rask will get more playing time. That a goaltender with a similar pedigree like Nikolai Khabibulin only got $3.75 million per year out of Edmonton last summer leads one to believe that the Bruins could’ve kept Thomas in the fold at less than $5 million per season. But Chiarelli didn’t want to take this chance, and there’s no telling what his fellow GMs, many who spend their teams’ money as though it’s burning a hole in their budgets, would’ve done when faced with the prospect of landing the services of the reigning Vezina winner. After all, after Thomas and Khabibulin, the likes of Dwayne Roloson, Martin Biron and Craig Anderson (who’s proven critics wrong himself) weren’t making GMs salivate.
While it’s definitely a little awkward, in a salary-cap league in particular, to pay your back-up goaltender five times as much as your starter, the Bruins’ cap allocation to goaltending is on par with all the other top puck-stopping teams in the league – and most pay it all out to just one guy (Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, J.S. Giguere). Had Thomas’ deal precluded them from getting Rask’s name on an extension or re-signing Milan Lucic or Marc Savard, the concept that Thomas’ deal is an albatross would be valid. In fact, all the deal has done is make sure that when all else fails, the Bruins can count on their goaltending no matter who they turn to.
Sure Thomas has had difficulty adapting to a lesser role. And maybe he’s still feeling the effects of the “undisclosed” injury that hampered him early on this season. No one, however, complained about his play after his five shutouts or after he beat San Jose in a shootout. Rask might be the better option for the Bruins over the season’s last week and a half, but he doesn’t have to be the only option. Regardless of who starts in net, the Bruins have the same chance to win every night.
It’s time to stop focusing so much on the goaltending and address the team’s real problem and Chiarelli’s true misstep, which is allocating too much of his salary cap money to scorers that don’t score and defensemen that turn the Bruins’ zone into a Chinese fire drill. All season long Rask and Thomas have mostly flourished under the unthinkable pressure of playing behind a team that couldn’t score a goal if it meant that Matt Cooke would fall through the ice to his death if the puck crossed the goal line, and a blue-line corps that thinks breakouts should resemble Nok-Hockey.
What have Michael Ryder, Blake Wheeler and Marco Sturm really done to earn their combined nearly $10 million (including Wheeler’s bonuses) this season? All three players go weeks between goals and all we hear about is how ‘they’re getting their chances’ and the puck will bounce for them sooner or later. In Sturm’s case, we’ve actually witnessed some stretches where those predictions came true. If you want to look at where this Bruins roster is flawed and why cap space is scarce when Chiarelli goes to market to find an extra scorer or puck-mover – why, in essence, the team couldn’t keep Derek Morris and add Dennis Seidenberg – look straight at those guys. Look at what Ryder has provided this team for $4 million and think about the teams that are able to pick a guy out of their farm system playing for a third of the amount to put up the same numbers. Heck, some would have you believe that any bum off the street could put up better numbers with Ryder considering all the time spent skating alongside gifted centerman David Krejci.
Then, of course, there’s the dismal play on the back end of Wideman, who even Vice President Cam Neely couldn’t hide his feelings about when he called the defenseman’s season “awful.” Boston’s defense corps was far from elite before Wideman decided to morph into a turnover machine. Add Wideman’s slide with Matt Hunwick’s stalled development and Andrew Ference’s injury (not to mention a depleted crop of defenseman down on the farm) and Boston’s standing as one of the best at goal-prevention borders on miraculous.
If Chiarelli is guilty of anything in terms of Thomas, it’s giving him a no-trade clause for so long. Of course, that won’t come into play if Chiarelli doesn’t want to trade Thomas. It’s not set in stone that Rask will be able to duplicate this season’s numbers next winter. He might go on to a Hall-of-Fame career, but could still suffer a sophomore slump. If Thomas is gone, the Bruins would have to rely on a Ty Conklin- or Mathieu Garon-type goaltender to carry the load in Rask’s stead. Then we’d really get to hear the masses complain about the goaltending.
For all their injuries, the Bruins can still finish as high as sixth in the Eastern Conference. They score goals less often than new revelations about Sandra Bullock’s husband hit the tabloids and after their top two defensemen, first passes out of the defensive zone are as treacherous as speeding down the shoulder of I-93. Yet everyone wants to blame the Bruins’ struggles on Tim Thomas for his play and his contract, and on Peter Chiarelli for committing the unbelievable sin of actually retaining an All-Star player in an organization that prior to a regime change in ’06 made it its priority to let seemingly any player worth paying go cash in elsewhere.
The Bruins’ goaltenders might get to go to Las Vegas to collect the Jennings in June because they’re the best around. That should be enough to deflect the blame where it rightfully belongs – elsewhere on the roster.