Tim Thomas better not expend too much energy at the 2011 NHL All-Star Weekend.
The Bruins’ star goaltender has a date with history after the All-Star Game, and if he can duplicate the numbers he put up in the first 50 games of the regular season, his haul of postseason hardware should be larger than what he brought home in 2009.
After the Bruins’ breakthrough 2008-09 season, which ended disappointingly in the second round of the playoffs, Thomas left Las Vegas that June with the Vezina and the Jennings Trophy (which he shared with Manny Fernandez).
Thomas, as the league-leader at the All-Star break in goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts, is the hand’s down favorite for this year’s Vezina. With the Bruins ahead of the pack in goals against, Thomas and Tuukka Rask are in the driver’s seat in pursuit of another Jennings. But with the type of numbers Thomas could wind up producing this season, and the Bruins again among the top six or seven teams in the NHL, the biggest award Boston’s netminder should be in line for is the Hart Trophy as MVP.
Goaltenders winning the Hart is a rarity. It took 36 years between Montreal legend Jacques Plante’s Hart win and Buffalo Sabres great Dominik Hasek’s snapping of the goaltenders’ drought in 1998 for goaltender’s to get back into the argument. Hasek, of course, repeated as the Hart winner the next season, and then Jose Theodore of Montreal was the MVP in 2002.
Since Theodore’s improbable season, goaltenders have been shut out of the Hart winner’s circle. That should change. At the All-Star break, Thomas has a .9453 save percentage — which would be the best ever if the season ended today. Even with a slight drop-off in his play, Thomas should be able to snap the single-season save percentage record Hasek set in 1998-99 (.9366).
Thomas’ GAA of 1.814 is also in some historic territory. The record is held by Miikka Kiprusoff from ’03-04 (1.695) and on one has posted a GAA of less than 1.967 since the clutch-and-grab era ended after the lockout.
Barring a major injury epidemic on Boston’s back end or a total reversal of team philosophy, Thomas should be able to keep his numbers at an elite level. And with Rask getting a little more time to stay sharp over the course of the season’s final 2 1/2 months, Thomas should also be able to stay fresh.
The only thing that could keep Thomas from the Hart/Vezina daily double would be stiff competition from a non-goaltender. In Hasek’s first Hart season, he beat out Paul Kariya, who wasn’t even the leading scorer on his own Anaheim team (which made the jump from fourth to second in its division from the season before). Hasek led the Sabres to the division title with a 2.27 GAA and .930 save percentage.
In ’98, voters deemed Hasek’s 2.09 GAA and .932 save percentage for a third-place Buffalo team more Hart-worthy than Jaromir Jagr’s league-leading 67 assists and 102 points for a division-winning Pittsburgh team. Jose Theodore only helped Montreal to a fourth-place finish in ’02, but he was still able to impress voters with his 2.11 GAA and .931 save percentage to beat out the league’s leader in goals (52) and points (96), Calgary’s Jarome Iginla. That’s one vote some might’ve wanted to do over.
This season, the competition for Thomas is comparable to that of Theodore. With Sidney Crosby having missed a bunch of games and still out indefinitely, that leaves Steven Stamkos as the biggest threat to Thomas’ Hart hopes. As the league-leader in the ever-sexy goals score category, and points, Stamkos is on pace for 61 goals and 108 points for a resurgent Tampa Bay franchise. Sixty-one goals would be the most by a league-leader since Alexander Ovechkin won the Hart and scored 65. For another 60-goal season you have to go all the way back to Mario Lemieux in 1996.
Certainly, people that want to deny a goaltender can be MVP will look for other candidates, including two-way Vancouver star Ryan Kesler (the favorite for the Selke) and Atlanta’s emerging blue-line force Dustin Byfuglien, who’s on pace for 65 points and is a major factor in the franchise turnaround in Atlanta. But, really, only Stamkos has an argument that he’s more valuable to his team than Thomas.
Of course, Stamkos gets to skate on a line with All-Star Martin St. Louis and on a team that also features Vinny Lecavalier and Ryan Malone. He benefits as much from the Lighnting’s up-tempo style as Thomas does from the defensive demeanor that dominates the Bruins’ strategy. Still, Stamkos is plus-12 on a team that’s 23rd in 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio.
Thomas also benefits from a defense led by Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara. Of course, as we all know, the Bruins’ defensive corps after Chara isn’t an all-world lineup. There have been at least eight to 10 nights this season that without Thomas performing at an unfathomable level, the Bruins wouldn’t have emerged with two points.
There are always going to be voters that won’t consider a goaltender for the Hart because netminders have the Vezina. For those with open minds, however, the Thomas-Stamkos showdown should go right down to the wire. And Thomas just might leave Las Vegas as the biggest winner in the league at his current rate of success.