Here’s a nice feature from Aaron Portzline about the Columbus Blue Jackets’ scouting staff. Within it is a cute story about how the team visited Nail Yakupov’s family’s temporary residence in Sarnia, Ontario, to get to know a little bit more about the top prospect.
It isn’t just Yakupov. The NHL Combine, which has morphed into a made-for-TV event for hockey fans to watch 17-year olds do push ups, sees dozens of prospects from all over the world asked the strangest questions by prospective NHL clubs.
Among them, questions about family. What their parents do. How close they are to their brothers and sisters. I’m not sure if any team has ever picked a kid based on a good prospect interview, but I’m convinced that a bad interview has tarnished one or two picks. Teams, especially teams with a lot of draft picks, have odd expectations for the modern hockey player.
As fans, our expectations of what hockey players ought to provide are sometimes ridiculously high. As social media evolves and hockey players become more involved in the public spotlight, we recognize things about players that we don’t like. Ryan Getzlaf, Patrick Kane and David Booth are all well-paid NHL players that have already come under heat for certain transgressions in their off-seasons.
Tim Thomas represents another one, and his off-season may just last a little longer.
According to his Facebook posting, Thomas will leave the NHL next season “to reconnect with the three F’s. Friends, Family, and Faith.”
The posting, obvious plug for his sponsor aside, is actually quite reasonable and sounds like a goaltender who, at the age of 38 and accomplished a hell of a lot in a really short NHL career, does want to spend time with his family and friends while he’s still on the right side of 40. Thomas didn’t have a typical career where he stayed in an organization for a while, albeit with an AHL team.
Thomas moved around a lot. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1997, Thomas never played for the same team two years in a row until 2004, after spending time in Birmingham, Houston, Helsinki, Hamilton, Detroit, Oulu, and Providence. He lived out of a suitcase until he was 30 years old and never got a regular NHL start until he was 31.
Players leave for the game for many reasons. Some retire, and then re-consider. Others get injured, sitting out entire seasons rehabbing. Some sideline themselves for personal issues, mental health or otherwise. Thomas is sitting out for a year, while I’m not in his head, you have to think that the uncertainty about his future before his no-trade clause kicks in just bore on him too much. For once in his life, Thomas was able to live in the same house, with the same teammates, on a damn good team that won the Stanley Cup.
Who knows if this will affect his legacy. From an on-ice perspective, Thomas played at one of the highest levels a goaltender has played over a stretch of six seasons. Post-lockout, no goaltender has a higher save percentage than Thomas’ .922. He won a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe double, along with two Vezina Trophies. With the minimal standards of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Thomas’ performance in six short seasons was worthy of legends.
It’s a great story too, the story of a journeyman goalie who didn’t play his first full NHL season until he was 31. He never gave up on his dream, competed, and put together one of the strongest statistical seasons in league history with an unbelievable 2011 run.
And now, at 37, he’s gone. If he doesn’t return, years from now this will just be another retirement. If not, it will just be a season washed away. Had he simply retired, the Boston Bruins would face the exact same problem as they do right now: getting Tuukka Rask under contract around a $5M obstacle, Thomas’ remaining cap-hit.
Sure, we’d prefer for players to play to the end of their contracts, but it wasn’t Thomas’ fault that the Bruins happened to agree to a front-loaded 35+ contract, which, upon retrospect, looks like one of the dumber things you could possibly sign a player to, since the cap number doesn’t come off the books after most of the money (in this case, $17M of $20M) has been taken by the player.
Do we begrudge Thomas for that? No. Is he weird? Yes. Was he, in the end, a huge piece of the Bruins’ organization? For sure. David Shoalts has a good column out today wherein he theorizes that Thomas used this to force his hand in a trade, which Thomas has every right to do. Despite his transgression, his teammate Tyler Seguin expressed a desire to play with him again, and no Bruin has gone on record suggesting that he’d rather not have Thomas on the team.
Ken Dryden, another Hall of Fame goaltender who played a remarkably short career, sat out a season after a dispute with general manager Sam Pollock, and his legacy remains un-tarnished. Either people forget about these things and the legacy of a player is determined by his on-field, not off-field capabilities (hello, Mickey Mantle) or the fact that Facebook didn’t exist back in 1974 helped Dryden maintain a good reputation.
Since we’re a day into the ‘Tim Thomas is a jerk who doesn’t care about his teammates’ discussion, chats about his legacy are pre-mature. If it’s only due to the fact that he posted an odd message on an online forum to announce a year off, well, I don’t think we can really judge a player for failing to meet to the high standards of personality that fans and media reserve for players. It’s not like Thomas’ reasons for leaving the game mirror Nathan Horton or Marc Savard’s, but the effect is the same if the Bruins can open the right loopholes in upcoming NHL-NHLPA negotiations. Nobody appears to be-grudge Chris Pronger for his refusal to wear a visor, a decision that may have cost Pronger at least a year in his career and the Philadelphia Flyers a tonne of salary cap space.
Tim Thomas had six awesome years with the Bruins and was the top goaltender in the league during that time. It’s not ours to judge the reasons why he won’t be in 2012-13. If you must speculate, speculate accordingly and keep it to on-ice matters; we’re not yet a year removed from the day he raised the first Stanley Cup the Bruins won since 1972. Also, he’s weird, but he was good.