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The action on the ice has cooled off around the NHL, but this week the focus shifts off the ice, as a busy week in hockey is headlined by Tuesday’s Hall of Fame inductees announcement, Wednesday night’s awards ceremony in Las Vegas, and this weekend’s NHL entry draft in Los Angeles. Follow that up with next week’s July 1st opening of free agency, and all signs point to the hockey hot stove burning up around the league in the coming weeks.
Close to home, the hottest and juiciest rumors around the Bruins organization center around veteran goaltender Tim Thomas. Thomas, who lost his starting job midway through last season to youngster Tuukka Rask, still has three years left on his current contract, at an annual cap hit of $5 million per season. That deal also includes a no-trade clause. But Thomas wants nothing else but to be a #1 goalie for a Cup contender, and all reports indicate that for the right situation, he would be willing to waive that no-trade clause to get back in the crease in a starting role.
So where can GM Peter Chiarelli ship a 36-year-old goaltender with a hefty contract, that just had off-season hip surgery? Surely, on the surface, it would seem as if Thomas would be a hard sell for the B’s front office to make. But sources indicate that the phones have been ringing in response to Thomas’s availability. CSNNE.com’s Joe Haggerty reported on Monday that the Bruins have made the trading of Tim Thomas a top priority for the off-season, helping them to free up much needed cap space in order to better spend their money elsewhere. Haggerty names three teams as top suitors thus far, as San Jose, Tampa Bay, and Philadelphia rank highest amongst his list of potential trade partners.
It remains to be seen what exactly the Bruins think they can get in return for Thomas. More draft picks? I suppose… but with four picks in the first two rounds this season, do the B’s really need any more? More likely, they’ll be left with swapping Timmy’s bad contract for another bad contract. But a bad contract coming this way that could contribute more than a backup goaltender would might not be a bad thing. Find a pricy winger who can give you minutes and at least some offensive production, and there may be a deal to be made.
So let’s now dive in and take a closer look at what’s out there for potential landing spots for Thomas, including the three teams already mentioned, while also introducing three other squads that I think should also be in the mix…
Their starter from last season, Evgeni Nabokov, is an unrestricted free agent come July 1st, and is hoping to stay in the $5-6 million per season range that he has enjoyed cashing in for the last few seasons. As the top free agent netminder on the market, it’s very likely he could land that much bling with ease. Backing up Nabokov was relative unknown Thomas Greiss, who still has one year left on his deal, at a cap-friendly $550,000.
The Sharks only have nine players under contract going into the July 1st opening of free agency, leaving them a lot of flexibility to re-shape their roster. If they decide to go in a different direction from Nabokov and let him walk, Thomas could be a good fit for a Cup-hungry team like San Jose, which still feels they have enough firepower up front to contend each year. And the Sharks have had pretty good luck in trading with Boston in the past, have they not?
Again, with only a handful of players left on their roster, the trade options are pretty limited for San Jose. They could always dump some prospects Boston’s way, or of course more draft picks, but I don’t see them parting ways with really anyone who is left on their current roster, with the exception maybe of winger Ryane Clowe.
Antero Niittymaki, who started just over half of Tampa’s games last season, becomes an unrestricted free agent next week, while the Bolts’ other netminder, Mike Smith, has just one year left on his deal, which will earn him $2.2 million in 2010-11. The ‘Ning could opt to re-sign Niittymaki, as his $600,000 salary last season is very affordable, and he’s likely not in line for that much of a raise on his new deal. But Thomas’s old college teammate at Vermont, Martin St. Louis, may push Tampa management to make a move for Thomas, who has proven he can win and be dominant in the NHL.
Thomas would no doubt be an upgrade over both Niittymaki or Smith, and could mean the difference between making the playoffs next season or spending another year on the sidelines come springtime. The Lightning have a ton of offensive weapons, led by youngster Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, and St. Louis, so a change in goal could just be what the doctor ordered for Tampa.
Keeping draft picks and prospects on the backburner for now, the most logical roster player whose salary matches up well with that of Thomas would be right winger Ryan Malone, a former Pittsburgh Penguin who is set to earn himself $4.5 million for each of the next five seasons. A lengthy contract for the B’s to saddle themselves with? Sure… but I like Malone’s game and at age 30, he still should be productive for the length of that contract.
The Flyers’ romp through the Eastern Conference playoffs was led by the unknown tandem of Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton. Boucher has one year left on his current deal at a rather inexpensive $925,000 cap hit, while Leighton will look for a raise on the open market, testing the free agency waters on July 1st. Ray Emery, injured for much of last season, also will become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Philly hasn’t had a solid goaltender since… well, since… hmm… have they ever had a top goalie? I guess not since the Ron Hextall days have the Flyers had a good answer in net, so Thomas could provide them with that answer for the next three seasons, and could put them over the top enough to get back to the Cup Finals and maybe even win the thing. They are a talented team up front, so finding a way to invest in goaltending is the right move to make.
Salary cap limitations are going to be what holds a deal up between both Boston and Philadelphia, as both squads are very tight to the cap. The Flyers have a ton of talented skaters under contract for next year, anyone from Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter, whose contracts would match up well with Thomas, down to Claude Giroux and Ville Leino, role players who could fill some holes on Boston’s forward lines.
The major question about Atlanta would be whether or not they’re willing to spend money this off-season. After unloading Ilya Kovalchuk at the trade deadline, it’s unclear in which direction the team is going: whether to rebuild and start over, or to reload for a playoff run sooner rather than later. Both of their goalies from last season are free agents this off-season, with veteran Johan Hedberg unrestricted while Ondrej Pavelec is a restricted free agent, so they have plenty of options in net going forward. Why shouldn’t trading for a former Vezina Trophy winner be one of those options?
The Preds have enjoyed minimal playoff success as a franchise, albeit getting there in the last few seasons at least. But the question they have to ask themselves is whether or not they believe goalie Pekka Rinne can carry this Nashville team and take them to the next level. Rinne, who has a pricy cap hit of $3.4 million in each of the next two seasons, is left as the only goalie remaining on the roster, as Dan Ellis becomes an unrestricted free agent. Nashville is not that far off from becoming one of the elite teams in the Western Conference. With the right deal, they very well could get there, and maybe a deal for Thomas could be that missing piece they need.
The Bruins have already been chatting it up with Oilers’ GM Steve Tambellini regarding a swap involving the two top picks in Friday’s entry draft. Why not spice things up and add Tim Thomas into the trade talks as well? I don’t know if any other team in the league has a rougher roster than the Oilers, as their rebuilding will likely take years to accomplish. This might be a tough sell for Thomas to decide to waive his no-trade clause, but Edmonton has a definite need for veteran leadership and for an upgrade in goal. With Devan Dubnyk and Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers both restricted free agents, that leaves Edmonton with just Nikolai Khabibulin as the only goalie on the roster. Granted, Khabibulin’s $3.75 million contract over the next three seasons would be tough to unload in favor of Tim Thomas, but if they could find a spot to ship “The ‘Bulin Wall” to, Thomas could be a piece to the rebuilding puzzle up north.