BOSTON - The Boston Bruins couldn't trade Tim Thomas over the summer.
Now they can't afford to let him go.
The 2009 Vezina Trophy winner and 2010 Olympic silver medallist is back from a hip injury that left him on the bench for the Bruins and the U.S. team in Vancouver. Now he's recovered from off-season surgery and proving to be even better than when he was the NHL's leading goaltender two years ago.
"At this level, if you stop trying to improve, you're going to get left behind," Thomas said Friday after the Bruins prepared for the return of the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. "I think the amount of years I have left in my career are limited. I want to see how good I can be, for as long as I can."
At 36—old enough to have been drafted by the Quebec Nordiques—Thomas is still getting better at an age when most athletes' skills are declining. He leads all qualifying goalies in win percentage (.833), save percentage (.955) and a dominating goals-against average (1.49), and his five shutouts so far this season already match his career-high.
He has rubbed off on his teammates, too, and it's exactly what the franchise needed. The Bruins, entering Friday's action, had 35 points, which was good for second place in the Northeast Division and fifth place in the Eastern Conference. What's more, they had played fewer games (27), than any other of the conference's top eight teams. So, there's plenty of time to climb up the playoff ladder.
This is all good news for a club that is still trying to shake last year's nightmarish finish. After building an impressive 3-0 lead on the Flyers in the second round, the Bruins collapsed and lost four straight. Philadelphia, Saturday's opponent, eventually landed in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Boston, meanwhile, went into an off-season of flux. Thomas, for all intents and purposes was a backup, and was about to enter the second season of a four-year, US$20 million contract extension that left the Bruins second-guessed almost as soon as it was signed. But the contract may have kept the team from trading him last summer, after Thomas struggled on a balky left hip and lost his starting job to rookie Tuukka Rask.
"There's always going to be rumours and discussions and stuff like that, and when you're a professional athlete that's part of the job," Bruins president Cam Neely said. "But Tim's so competitive. I mean, this guy's one of the most competitive players I've seen. In practice, he hates to get scored on as much as he does in games, so it probably motivated him a little bit to come back and have the year that he's having so far."
Thomas won the Vezina with a league-leading 2.10 goals-against average and helped the Bruins earn the best record in the Eastern Conference in 2008-09. A year later, he finished with a still-respectable 2.56 GAA and matched his career-high with five shutouts. But he also finished below .500 for the first time in three seasons.
Thomas lost six of seven games in one stretch early in the season, and then eight out of nine heading into the Olympic break—a slump that cost him his starting job in Boston and any chance of meaningful playing time in Vancouver. He appeared in just one game in relief of tournament MVP Ryan Miller, playing 11 minutes, 31 seconds after the Americans opened a six-goal lead over Finland in the semifinals.
With the Bruins bumping up against the NHL salary cap, Thomas seemed like the most tradable commodity. But with that $5 million annual salary, it was hard to find takers.
"It's obvious that (Rask) is going to be our goalie of the future. But he's still young," Bruins forward Mark Recchi said. "At some point, they're not going to be able to keep both of them. But I think we're not there now. These two guys, they feed off each other. They stop the puck; they don't focus on anything else, which is great. And you don't win a Stanley Cup without two goalies."
Despite the competition, Thomas and Rask appear to get along well, and everyone involved insists that having two good goalies can only be a boon. Bruins coach Claude Julien looks at a schedule that has the Bruins playing on back-to-back nights six times in November and December, and thinks it just might be worth it to keep both of them.
"You look for an edge," he said, "and when you have a backup playing well, you give yourself an opportunity to put a fresh goaltender out there."
Thomas never let it bother him when he lost his starting job. He remained confident that when he got his game back, it wouldn't be a problem to find work—in Boston, or elsewhere.
He had surgery to repair the labrum in his left hip over the summer and spent the off-season relaxing at home with his family, making fewer of his usual off-season fishing trips to Vermont because of the thrice-weekly physical therapy appointments. When the Bruins opened the year in Czechoslovakia, he was ready.
"He's a battler, and there's no way you're gonna see him sit back and just wait to play," Miller said this week when the Sabres visited Boston. "He's going to push; he's going to push hard. I'm happy to see he's healthy because he's a great guy. And if he wasn't in my division, I'd cheer for him a little harder."
Thomas went undefeated through his first nine starts. So far, he only has two regulation losses in 19 starts.
"He never gave up on himself," said Bruins forward Mark Recchi, a 42-year-old veteran of 22 NHL seasons. "He's healthy, and he just got off to a great start. I haven't seen a run like that in a long time."
And it was a long time coming.
A ninth-round pick by the Nordiques out of the University of Vermont in 1994, Thomas didn't make his NHL debut until the age of 28, and didn't move into a starting job until he was 32. That was after four NHL organizations, a handful more in the North American minor leagues and a few in Scandinavia, where he was a popular and successful star who led IFK Helsinki to the Finnish championship and became the first American to be named the league's top goaltender.
"He wants to prove to himself and everybody else he's still an elite goaltender," Neely said. "If you look at his career as a big picture, nothing ever came easy—and then all of a sudden he wins the Vezina Trophy in the NHL. Sometimes, you've got to remember how you ended up accomplishing those things.
"I think he probably looked at it over the course of the off-season and maybe came to the conclusion: 'I've got to battle. I've got to work hard.' And good things come from that."
And you don't hear any trade talk in Boston any more. Certainly not in the Bruins locker room.
"As of right now, that's not even in question," forward Blake Wheeler said.
But during the summer it's all anyone talked about.
"A lot of things are in question during the summer," Wheeler said. "It's different right now."