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Options for NHL free agent Tim Thomas fall between slim and none

NHL free agent goaltender Tim Thomas has few options.Tim Thomas is likely finding the market for his services to be a lot smaller than he expected. (Elise Amendola/AP)

By Allan Muir

There's no telling what Tim Thomas imagined his future employment options might be when he waved goodbye to the Boston Bruins and made a hasty retreat to the wilds of Colorado last summer.

But if he left with the idea that there would be a ready market for the winner of the 2011 Vezina and  Conn Smythe trophies, well, he guessed poorly.

Thomas made it known earlier this month through his agent, Bill Zito, that he's ready to come in from the cold and resume his NHL career. But the reception so far has been chilly, and there's not much reason to think it will warm up.

It's not just a matter of whether Thomas can still play goal, although that's a legitimate question for a 39-year-old who hasn't faced an NHL shot since Apr. 25, 2012. Practicing yoga in between chopping wood probably kept him in shape, but that's not the same as hockey shape. And it's unreasonable to expect a team to assume the risk of a contract without seeing him in game action.

But the bigger issue for Thomas is fit. As in, finding a team that needs a goalie, can afford him financially, and provides a setting where he can be happy.

That team might not exist.

There was talk initially about the Flyers being interested because hey, they're interested in everybody who has his own set of pads and stop a puck or two, but that deal is not happening. Philly is set between the pipes with free agent signee Ray Emery and Steve Mason, and the Flyers probably don't have enough under the cap now to buy a Tim Thomas hockey card, let alone the real thing.

The Islanders were also said to be in the mix, but they could have tolled his contract and kept him if they were seriously interested. They've since re-signed Evgeni Nabokov and are committed to giving Kevin Poulin a chance to prove that he's ready to assume a larger role. A sketchy combo to be sure, but the Isles are committed for now.

The opportunities vary from slim to none with the other playoff contenders. So would Thomas be willing to suit up for an also-ran?

Calgary has the cap space to afford him (it should be noted here that while no one has thrown any numbers around yet, Thomas is believed to be looking for something close to the $5 million he earned on his last deal), but assuming that Miikka Kiprusoff retires (and that's still not official yet), the Flames are going with Karri Ramo and Joey MacDonald, which makes sense for a rebuilding team. No use scratching out a few extra wins with Thomas that would only hurt their long-term plans.

Florida and Edmonton have the cap space, too, but both already have tandems in place. Edmonton GM Craig MacTavish promised bold moves this summer and hasn't yet delivered. Thomas would certainly qualify as bold, and he'd likely be an upgrade over Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera, but he'd be a short-sighted addition for a young team that's not quite ready for prime time.

That leaves the Panthers. A team selling $7 tickets is clearly in need of a credibility boost, and while goalie-of-the-future Jacob Markstrom just signed a new two-year deal, the first year is two-way, meaning he could be sent to the minors to clear a spot between the pipes if he's not ready .. .or if someone better comes along.

Florida is coming off a tough campaign that saw the Panthers slink back into the basement one year after breaking a 10-season playoff drought. That means GM Dale Tallon might be inclined to do something dramatic, not just to regain some traction but to take the pressure off young players like Sasha Barkov, Quinton Howden and Nick Bjugstad, who are expected to play major roles next season.

Markstrom is still penciled in as Florida's opening night starter, with veteran Scott Clemmensen backing him up, so Thomas is unlikely to simply be handed a contract and given marquee billing. But a training camp invite with an eye on proving himself game-ready is an option. And if he looks like he can still stop more pucks than some other guy, then maybe the Cats bite.

Or maybe they don't, but he shows enough that he becomes Plan B for a team that gets off to a slow start or runs into injury problems. Maybe Emery's hip acts up in Philly. Maybe Nabokov struggles out of the gate and the Islanders, fearful of taking a step back after last season's playoff breakthrough, are desperate for reinforcements.

Seems kind of demeaning for a guy who has been the winning goalie in the past four All-Star Games, but that's probably what it comes down to.

But it could always be worse. He could be Ilya Bryzgalov.
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