Tim Thomas doesn’t expect anyone to expect greatness from him. He’s been through the drill enough times to know that people may write him off. In the process, he has developed quite the reputation for proving doubters wrong.
"People probably expected me to drop off this fall, even," Thomas told WEEI.com Wednesday.
This has been the year of the Bruins. The team won its first Stanley Cup in 39 years and did it behind Thomas, who heard the murmurs that his career was on the decline and fired back with perhaps the best statistical season for a goaltender in the history of the NHL.
"As an athlete, you have to keep proving it over and over and over. Boston has the history of just expecting more and more out of you as an athlete, but part of it I think is just me," Thomas said. "That just seems to be the storyline of my career, is people don’t expect it out of me. I just keep trying to prove people wrong."
Thomas broke Dominik Hasek’s save-percentage record, and in addition to winning the Cup, took home the Vezina and the Conn Smythe. With 2011 coming to a close, Thomas has been chosen as WEEI.com’s Sportsman of the Year.
"It was a storybook year, you know? Especially the springtime and the summer," Thomas said of '11. "Nobody really expected us to win the Cup, let’s be honest. We knew we were shooting for it, but if we were to be honest, nobody knew that we were going to win the Cup either. The way the playoffs played out with all the drama and the different storylines and the different series, it was an epic year for the Bruins and for myself."
An epic year, but at no point was it one in which Thomas didn’t feel he had naysayers to prove wrong. Given that he is tied for the league lead in shutouts (four) and is in the top three in both save percentage and goals-against average, it looks like Thomas is silencing critics once again.
'I HAD AN ADVANTAGE' OVER LUONGO
Thomas may be at his best when he’s doubted. Last season, following a postseason that Thomas spent on the bench, it seemed the starting job was Tuukka Rask’s to lose. In reality, it ended up being Thomas’ job to take back. He did that in the second game of the season, blanking the Coyotes in Prague for the first of nine shutouts he would have on the season. Even when he put together a regular-season for the ages, there was a question of whether he could keep it up and lead the B’s to the Cup.
Then, when the Bruins were two games away from winning the coveted trophy and one loss away from losing it, the wrong person started doubting Thomas. That person was Roberto Luongo.
After Thomas allowed one goal in the Canucks’ Game 5 victory over the Bruins, Luongo was asked about the game’s lone goal, in which a Kevin Bieksa shot from the point missed the net, bounced off the end boards, and bounced to the side of Thomas’ net. Maxim Lapierre was waiting for hit, and with Thomas defending the side from which the initial shot was taken, Lapierre buried the game-winner. The Canucks had been complaining about Thomas’ aggressive style the whole series, and Luongo, a more conventional and butterfly-style goaltender, finally had the opportunity to blast Thomas for his unorthodox tactics.
"It's not hard if you're playing in the paint,” Luongo said when asked what such a play is like for a goaltender. “It's an easy save for me, but if you're wandering out and aggressive like he does, that's going to happen."
Perhaps it was then that Thomas knew he had Luongo beaten. Luongo was one win away from the Cup, but it was Thomas – with his back against the wall – who had it more together.
“As far as Luongo goes, actually, all that did was give me confidence that his head was in the wrong place, because I was focused on stopping the puck and he was thinking about my style,” Thomas said Wednesday as he reflected on the now infamous comment.
“I realized that I had an advantage over him,” Thomas added. “… The challenge on my end was to keep that advantage.”
Thomas did indeed keep that advantage, allowing two goals over the next two games compared to Luongo’s six and hoisting the Stanley Cup on June 15. It was a series in which the Canucks had actually complained to the league about Thomas’ playing style and the contact he was making with players in front of the net.
If Thomas wanted to listen, he would have heard complaint after complaint about how he played the game. Given that the way he played had taken him to where he was, he wasn’t going to change.
“It was the whole Canadian media that was trying to throw me off my game there in the finals, trying to basically criticize my game or tell me that I should play a different way under the circumstances,” Thomas said. “It didn’t bother me. I just had to make sure that I stayed on track and not let that stuff get to me.”
That stuff never got to Thomas, though he had clearly gotten to the Canucks. That was just one of the many ways in which Thomas helped bring the Cup to Boston.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL, BUT KEEPING IT SIMPLE
The book on goaltenders is that it’s hard to tell what’s going through their heads. By reputation, they’re space-cases.
When Thomas is on the ice and he isn’t dealing with an onslaught of shots, he’s picking up every bit of information and organizing it in whatever way he can to be advantageous. He pays attention to the color of tape players use. He pays attention to lefties vs. righties. He tracks the curves of players’ sticks.
Last season, Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel went out for warmups with one color tape, and when the game started, he was using the other color.
"He switches," Thomas said. "Some guys switch tape colors during periods. I just notice it right away. It’s not just the tape color. It’s the shape of their blade. You can tell players by the shape of their blade, where they stop the tape on their stick. Some of them tape the whole blade, and some of them stop."
Do players mix things up to try to throw Thomas off? If so, he’s quick enough to catch it.
"I’ve never had anyone switch up on me and cause a problem," he said with a laugh.
The attention to detail isn’t specific to Thomas, and unlike a Curt Schilling-type, he doesn’t have the advantage of writing down everything he sees every few minutes. Instead, Thomas relies on a collection of mental notes stored from over the years to have him prepared for whatever may be thrown his way.
"I’m sure there are other ways and I’m sure goalies have other systems," Thomas said. "I know I had heard that Marty Brodeur did quite a bit of scouting on shooters back in the day, even going to video. I’ve never gone that far, although when I am watching the NHL Network, if I see something and it clicks, I’ll be like, ‘Oh,’ and I’ll remember that. But I’m not going out of my way to study and look for it. I’m taking the information that’s right in front of my face and trying to make sense of it."
RETHINKING RETIREMENT PLANS?
Before training camp opened last season, well before anyone knew just how good Thomas would be, the goaltender said that he imagined he would retire at the end of his current deal, which as it stands is set to expire after the 2012-13 season.
"If I had to speculate right now, I’d say odds are probably yeah,"Thomas said on Sept. 15, 2010. "It all depends. I just had a major hip surgery. If I’m fortunate the next three years and I don’t have any other injuries, it makes it easier to play another year or two. … If I happen to have injuries … it’s never easy if you want to be able to walk by the time you’re done."
One historic season later, Thomas may be rethinking his plans. Asked whether his plan was still to retire after next season, Thomas paused for exactly five seconds before offering the following:
"I don’t know. You know, I’m going to take it year by year," he said in a contemplative manner. "Just take it year by year. Obviously I’m able to play at a very high level right now. It’s just going to be a matter of what I feel like is the best decision for me and my family when that decision time comes."
Year-to-year beginning when? Will Thomas, who has now won two Vezinas, the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe, consider it this offseason?
"I mean, I haven’t thought that far ahead," Thomas said. "We’re still in the middle of the season. I think most of these things, you have more time to truly think of them in the offseason."
For now, Thomas doesn’t want to make a big deal of the future of his career, however long that may be. For now, he’s focused on doing what he can to maintain his elite level of play.
"You try to plan the future, but it only helps to a certain extent," he said. "There’s usually so many circumstances that get in the way of your plans before your plans come to fruition. You’re almost better off not planning too far ahead."
Thomas will be 38 years old at the end of the season, and given the way his contract was drawn up, will have made $17 million of the four-year, $20 million pact. Whether he plays this deal out, signs another contract or walks away from that remaining $3 million remains to be seen. But there’s no denying he’s been worth the money.
ACCEPTING HIS PLACE IN HISTORY
Thomas knows the game well, and he knows its history well. He knew what Hasek’s save percentage record was last year until he went out and broke it. He read Ken Dryden’s book when he was in college.
Recently, Thomas has had to handle the fact that he is now among the historically great netminders, and one of the few truly elite of the last 20-plus years. Since the criteria for the Vezina was changed to being awarded to the goaltender “adjudged to be the best at his position,” Thomas is one of five players to win the award multiple times. The other four? Hasek (who won it six times), Brodeur (four) Patrick Roy (three) and Ed Belfour (two).
"It’s pretty cool to kind of make it into that class. To be honest, a part of me is kind of getting comfortable with being in that class, you know?" Thomas said. "[I’m] using it as a positive motivation to see how well I can keep doing it and how high I can raise the bar.
"At the beginning, when you start to get in that class, you feel uncomfortable, because you’re human and you feel, ‘Oh, I’m not in that class.’ But my play has been so well and my numbers, instead of feeling uncomfortable like that, over the past couple of months, I’ve just decided to go with it and see how well I can play."
Thomas didn’t even play his first NHL game until he was 28 years old, and he only played four games for Boston in that season. Still, he always held himself to a high standard so he could get the most out the talent that many organizations failed to recognize. Now that he’s established himself as one of the best to ever play goalie, he’s trying to hold himself to that high standard without putting too much pressure on himself.
"You’ve got to turn things around and make positive motivation all the time," he said. “Instead of looking at a situation as there’s a lot pressure to keep up that level of play, instead of looking at it like that, I try to turn it around and be like, 'OK, here’s where I’m at, but am I actually as good as I can be? Are there ways that I can be better? What can I do to improve?'"
A HALL OF A GUY?
Of the four aforementioned multiple-Vezina winners since 1981, two are in the Hall of Fame (Roy and Belfour), and the other two in Brodeur and Hasek are shoo-ins to one day be enshrined in Toronto.
Thomas may be a different case. While he has been dominant in his time in the league, he hasn’t done it for as long a stretch. Take a look at the numbers on the five goalies with multiple Vezinas under the current criteria.
Thomas has the best save percentage among the five, but the lack of games played is what will hurt him, even if he plays another season or two after this one.
Still, if Thomas can pick up another Vezina or two, how could the league keep a three- or four-time winner out the Hall of Fame? These are all things Thomas can think about as he puts together another Vezina-caliber season, but the Hall of Fame isn’t as important to him right now as the next game on the schedule.
"It has crossed my mind at certain points, but I don’t know how much of an impact me getting in the league so late and not really having the 15 years like Roy and Brodeur and even Hasek [will have]. I don’t really know where I stand or where I fit, so I just decided not to think about that too much and just focus on the small picture," Thomas said. "For example, just this year. I tried to have a really good November. Then I had such a good November that I was like, ‘OK, I’ll see what I can do in December,’ and break it down into small pieces like that."
HIS IMPACT ON THE FUTURE OF BOSTON HOCKEY
There’s no denying that Thomas is a local hero. Chris Kelly even wonders if he could someday have a Wayne Gretzky-like effect on New England.
When Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings in 1988, he gave California a hockey superstar unlike any it had ever had. Kids would see him play in California in the late 1980s through the early '90s, and in the last two drafts, the likes of Emerson Etem, Beau Bennet and Rocco Grimaldi have all been California-born players who were selected in the first 33 picks of the NHL draft.
Hockey is obviously popular in New England to begin with, but Kelly wonders whether the NHL might see more goaltender prospects come out of the area in the future thanks to the fact that young players had Thomas to look up to.
"I don’t know if I could take credit for it," Thomas said with a grin. "I might be able to look back and say I had a small part in that, at least. If you’re a young goalie looking for examples of how to play goalie right now, to mimic, to get better, which is kind of what you do, between me and Tuukka, we’ve got a pretty good mixture. There are a lot of things to pick up.
"If I was a young goalie, I’d be trying some stuff I see Tuukka do and see if it works, I’d be trying some stuff that I do to make it work for me. I think they have two pretty good guys -- two totally different, but good styles -- to pick out of."
There’s no telling whether Thomas’ outstanding play might inspire a generation of goalies from Boston, but if youngsters are looking for a picture of elite play, perseverance and level-headedness en route to become a local icon, Thomas has defied the odds and silenced critics by painting it.