Doesn’t anyone ever make a trade anymore for purely hockey reasons?
It sure doesn’t seem so, and it certainly wasn’t the case Thursday when the Boston Bruins made the biggest splash of the early season, shuffling off the rights to goaltender Tim Thomas to the New York Islanders for a conditional second round draft choice in either 2014 or 2015.
Of course, it would have been a bigger deal if Thomas was actually playing any hockey this year – or intended to play some once he was moved. According to the man with his finger on the trigger, Bruins’ general manager Peter Chiarelli, that’s not going to happen. Chiarelli only talked briefly with Thomas to inform him of the deal – apparently, the ex-Bruin goalie was out walking his dogs at the time – but said: “Nothing would suggest to me that he’s coming back this season.”
Instead, the move was made purely for financial reasons, the twisty sort of cap machinations that colour everything these days. It aids the Bruins’ cause because Boston was being charged the pro-rated value of Thomas’s $5-million contract against its 2012-13 salary cap. By getting the contract off the books, the Bruins create additional cap space in case Chiarelli wants to enter the trade market sooner rather than later.
The Islanders’ cap issues were at the other end of the spectrum. Technically, once they reinstated suspended defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky Thursday, they reached the salary cap floor and thus became cap compliant. But Thomas’s deal gives them some flexibility to move Visnovsky or other assets if they choose to do so.
Also: Because Thomas is on hiatus this year, the Islanders could “toll” the contract, meaning they can count it against their cap again next year if they need the cap charge to get to the league’s payroll minimum. And if they don’t, then they can turn it around and swap the contract to someone else that needs help. In theory, Thomas’s contract could be a perpetual “get out of jail” card for any cash-strapped team that wants to incur a salary cap charge without actually paying any of the dollars to a player.
Yes, that’s what the NHL has come to. Not only do you need an advanced math degree in order to make the payroll numbers work, if you have any experience as a junk bond trader, there’s an assistant GM position waiting for you in the front office.
Now, Thomas could throw a wrench into the works by actually deciding to play again next year. That was the one topic where Chiarelli said he could shed no fresh light. I asked him he got any vibe at all off Thomas about what he plans to do next. Chiarelli would only venture that Thomas was “at peace” and that his agent had indicated Thomas would “contemplate” playing next year, which means maybe yes, maybe no.
Thomas will turn 39 in April, but even with all the weirdness of last season – boycotting the team’s White House visit, posting political screeds on Facebook – still put up thoroughly respectable numbers (35-19-1, 2.36 GAA, .920 save percentage). Chiarelli talked repeatedly about Thomas’s competitiveness – and how, in the inexact science of evaluating goaltenders, he had learned to put more of a premium on competitiveness (as opposed to technique) by watching Thomas succeed.
Maybe the most interesting thought from Chiarelli was how the trade market might unfold in the shortened season. Chiarelli predicted “the available players are going to be scarce. Because of the condensed season, myself included, we’re trying to figure out the market and when it starts and the ebbs and flows of it.
“We’ve got a good team. It doesn’t mean we’re going to go out and get somebody because we have this cap space now, but sometimes in my experience, there are good deals that come early and you have to be in the ballgame and we’re in the ballgame now.”
The Bruins will only receive the second-rounder from the Islanders if Thomas plays, so it is in their best interests to see him return, even if New York is a conference opponent.
“If anyone can do it, it’s him,” predicted Chiarelli, who noted: “We don’t win the Cup without him.
“He’s done some pretty special stuff at a later age. I don’t know what he’s been doing. At the age of 38 or 39, it would be tough physically and mentally to take a year off and come back.”