Back Check with the Bruins Buff

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Trade Deadline/Free Agency -- Goaltending

Last week, I asked readers to vote on solutions for next year's goaltending dilemma. The question: Who Should Be Boston's Starting Goaltender Next Season?

Both of Boston's netminders will reach unrestricted free agent status by the season's end. Only one of them, if not neither, will sign with the B's in the off-season.

Big pay raises, limited cap space, and rookie potential could all factor in the B's Brass decision. Peter Chiarelli and company need to carefully evaluate the situation for both the long- and short-term success of the team.

The results of the poll...

1.) Tim Thomas -- 70%

Timmy Thomas enters his fourth straight season with the Bruins, currently posting a 24-5-5 record in 34 starts this year. He leads the league in save percentage at .932 and ranks second for goals against average with 2.10.

"The Flint Flopper," as nicknamed by the lovely Pittsburgh Penguins announcers, has been to the All-Star game twice during his tenure with the B's. He's only six wins away from posing 100 victories with the B's, a feat not seen since the days of Andy Moog.

Thomas' unconventional style makes some fans uneasy -- he plays a game based on recklessness and athleticism rather than sticking to pure positioning. Think Dominik Hasek to the max, diving his body in front of the puck and flopping more than humanly possible to make sure it doesn't cross the goal line.

When Tim is hot, he'll win stretches upon stretches of games for the club. He's currently 3-0-0 in his last three starts, and hasn't lost a game in regulation since last month.

But when Thomas becomes fatigued, he'll let in bursts of goals and give up on the game. He tended to do this more during his early days with the B's, when a proper defensive system wasn't placed in front of him. Thank you, Coach Dave Lewis.

As far as cap hit goes, Thomas currently eats up $1.1 million of salary. That will no doubt skyrocket as he negotiates a new contract this summer. A top goaltender in the league, at least statistically, could fetch a hefty pay raise in free agency.

Should the B's keep him? If they can sign him for a hometown discount, absolutely. Thomas has become a face of this franchise just as much as any other player on the ice. His Cinderella Story has has become a legend throughout the league.

Despite being blown out a handful of times, Thomas is often the B's best player on the ice. He's saved games more times than any Bruins fan can count, even when the team in front of him isn't skating.

But with Phil Kessel and David Krejci also looking to resign with the club this summer, the B's can't afford to throw a contract at Thomas worth more than $4 million a year. And with young 'tender Tuukka Rask quickly on the rise, Boston wouldn't look to sign Thomas longterm.

Other goaltenders with stats much lower than Thomas' are raking in upwards of $5 million a year. J.S. Giguere and Evgeni Nabokov both make $5.5 million. Cristobal Huet makes $5.6 million, Nikolai Khabibulin makes close to $7 million. The list goes on.

A team desperate for goaltending in the off-season could throw that kind of lucrative, longterm contract Thomas' way. The B's simply wouldn't be able to match or raise such an offer. Cinderella Man would roll in the dough he deserves and fly out of Logan Airport come July 1.

Regardless, don't expect the B's Brass to deal Thomas at the trade deadline. He's carried this team for large portions of the season, and he'll likely carry them even more in the playoffs.

2.) Manny Fernandez -- 20%

Manny enters his second year with the B's, currently posting a 14-3-2 record in 19 starts this season. As of today, he's gone 1-0-1 in his last couple of starts, including a 4-3 loss against the Philadelphia Flyers over the weekend.

Like Thomas, Fernandez boasts some of the top numbers in the league. The Ontario native ranks fifth in save percentage at .925 and ranks third in goals against average with 2.16.

His honors don't end there. In 2006-2007, Manny was awarded with the William M. Jennings trophy for lowest goals against in the league. Not bad for a #1B 'tender.

But the injury bug hasn't been kind to this netminder. Last year, Fernandez only played four games with the club before suffering a season-ending knee injury early on. The same nagging injury ended his previous season with the Minnesota Wild.

"New season, new injury" must be a clause written into Manny's contract. He missed most of January and the beginning of this month battling an undisclosed back injury. And he's only played four games in the new year.

Though he's played less games and posted less victories, Fernandez showcases a more positionally sound game than Thomas. He plays a beautiful butterfly style complimented with superb lateral movement and agile reflexes. Unfortunately, it takes him awhile to shake the rust off and perfect the style after an injury bout.

Manny's cap hit isn't friendly, especially for the amount of games he's played in the past two seasons. He earns a little more than $4 million a year and will be a UFA in the summer.

The possibility of Peter Chiarelli and friends moving Fernandez at the deadline has been discussed, but it doesn't seem written in the stars.

Fernandez has only played 24 games in the past two seasons. Some of the better backups in the league have seen more time than that in one year. For a team to take a chance on an injury-prone goaltender going into the playoffs seems like a gamble most GMs wouldn't be willing to make.

But let's say a team shows interest in Fernandez. A team desperate for a somewhat proven 'tender that has some cap space. Realistically, what value does Manny have?

Not much. Montreal traded goaltender Cristobal Huet to the Capitals at the deadline last year for a second-round draft pick. The Sabres traded Marty Biron to the Flyers at the deadline two years ago for a second-round draft pick.

Is trading Fernandez to Team X worth a second-round pick?

All things considered, the B's would be lucky to get that sort of return for an injury-prone netminder. If they packaged Manny with a prospect, they might be able to fetch a #3 defenseman or top-nine forward. But it's not a given.

Boston would be better off hanging on to Manny, giving it a #1A/#1B platoon to dominate the playoffs with. And if Thomas grows tired toward the end of the season, Manny can step in and man the wheel for awhile.

That still leaves Fernandez walking into free agency at the end of the season. Unless the B's Brass decides to sign him to a contract.

Fernandez would likely come cheaper than Thomas and cheaper than the $4 million he's been raking in. As already stated, few teams will overpay for a 34-year-old injury-prone netminder. He won't be seeing lucrative offers come July.

The Bruins could work that to their advantage. Try offering Fernandez a $2-3 million contract and platoon him with rookie Tuukka Rask next season. A cheap stop-gap until Rask shows he's ready to dominate between the pipes.

But if Manny goes down with an injury and Tuukka flounders, that'd spell trouble for the Black and Gold.

3.) Tuukka Rask -- 10%

Arguably the B's best prospect, Tuukka Rask has only seen one game with the big club this season.

The Finnish Flash posted 35 saves and a shutout in a 1-0 victory against the New York Rangers last month. He was called up to fill in for Manny Fernandez during his latest bout with back spasms.

Other than that, Rask has played with the Providence Bruins in the AHL this season. He's gone 21-15-0 with the Baby B's, tallying a respectable .918 save percentage.

Last season, Rask tasted four games of NHL action. He posted a 2-1-1 record before the B's signed Alex Auld to back up Timmy Thomas. The Flash played in the AHL for the rest of the season.

The common thread? Rask lacks NHL experience as both a backup and a starter.

Despite this, Rask has been deemed one of the best goaltending prospects in the world. He's one of the fastest 'tenders the game has seen in a long time, boasting speedy post-to-post movement and reflexes that Duran Duran couldn't begin to describe.

Though his rebound control needs work, Rask's fluid butterfly style makes for picture-perfect saves in any defensive system. As he once said to his teammates before a game, "Score two goals and I can win the game for us."

A few Bruins Buffs want to hand him the ropes and let him go to town next season. Unlike Thomas and Fernandez, Rask isn't a free agent this summer. Letting the platoon walk frees up more cap space to resign Krejci and Kessel, seeing as Tuukka's cap hit wouldn't be nearly as much.

Likeliest scenario: One of Thomas/Fernandez is signed to a contract with Tuukka playing backup for the first half of the season. B's gradually give Tuukka more starts as the season goes on and ease him into a starter role by 2010-2011.

4.) Other -- 0%

Nobody voted for the B's to bring in a different starting goaltender. Chances are they will not.


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