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Thomas re-ups with Bruins

Goalie's deal is for 4 years, $20 million

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / April 4, 2009
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WILMINGTON - For the last three years, the Bruins have benefited from one of former general manager Mike O'Connell's last acts before his firing March 25, 2006.

The move, ridiculed as a $3.3 million laugher (one that ultimately cost O'Connell his job) given to a goalie considered a flop-first acrobat by his critics, has been one of the organization's finest decisions. At a cut-rate price of $1.1 million per season, the Bruins have received three standout years of netminding from Tim Thomas, who has become one of the NHL's finest goalies.

Finally, Thomas will be compensated like one.

Yesterday, Thomas agreed to a four-year, $20 million contract extension. According to a source in another NHL team's front office, Thomas will earn $6 million in both 2009-10 and 2010-11, $5 million in 2011-12, and $3 million in 2012-13. Starting next season, Thomas will have the second-highest average salary on the team behind Zdeno Chara's $7.5 million. Thomas will have the 12th-highest annual salary among NHL goalies.

"He's one of the best goalies in the league, for sure," Chara said.

Thomas was not available for comment yesterday. He is scheduled to speak at a press conference this morning at TD Banknorth Garden prior to the matinee against the Rangers.

Thomas, whose hockey story could have been penned by Horatio Alger (stops including Birmingham, Ala., and Helsinki before he was recalled to Boston in 2005-06, when 29 NHL teams could have claimed him on reentry waivers), is the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie this season.

In 51 games, Thomas has a 33-11-7 record with a 2.11 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. Among regular starters, he has the NHL's best GAA and save percentage and is sixth in wins. Thomas was named to the All-Star Game for the second straight season. He also projects to be the starting goalie for Team USA in next year's Olympics in Vancouver.

Last year, Thomas made his first NHL playoff appearance after going 28-19-6 with a 2.44 GAA and a .921 save percentage during the regular season.

Re-signing Thomas was general manager Peter Chiarelli's No. 1 priority, considering Manny Fernandez will become a free agent and the Bruins are wary of rushing 22-year-old Tuukka Rask. Thomas would have been an unrestricted free agent July 1. Salaries aren't expected to make a big jump this summer because the cap should remain at $56.7 million. Had Thomas hit the market, he could have commanded a price similar to the four-year, $22.5 million bounty the Blackhawks gave Cristobal Huet last summer. But Thomas, who lives north of Boston, has repeatedly voiced his affinity for the area, which he considers his year-round home.

The Bruins also wanted to lock up Thomas before April 15, when he turns 35. The collective bargaining agreement states that if a player signs after he turns 35, his full cap hit must be carried on the books, even if he is bought out, at a cost of $2 million over two years.

While Thomas will turn 35 one day before the Bruins are expected to kick off the playoffs, he has been free from major injuries. Last season, he missed six games because of a groin injury. And he had to pull out of the world championships after three games last spring because of a knee strain. Thomas plays a high-energy style that requires a solid backup to give him rest, but he has quieted his game and resorts to all-out acrobatics only in last-ditch situations.

In Thomas, the Bruins should have a go-to No. 1 goalie, but also a mentor for Rask, with Fernandez expected to sign elsewhere after this season. Rask recorded a shutout in his only NHL start this season, and has been seeing the bulk of the playing time in Providence. He will be entering the final year of a contract worth $3.2 million annually, if he hits certain performance bonuses. Rask's base salary is $850,000 per year.

Chiarelli's next step is to address David Krejci, Phil Kessel, Matt Hunwick, and Byron Bitz, who will become restricted free agents this summer. While the Bruins would like to keep the current group together, they will likely have to clear salaries to sign Krejci, their most important free agent-to-be. Also, Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler will become restricted free agents July 1, 2010. Given the club's depth up front, forwards like Kessel, Patrice Bergeron, Michael Ryder, and Chuck Kobasew could be in play on the trade market leading up to the draft in Montreal this June.

Kessel practiced on the fourth line yesterday, but will miss his fifth straight game today. Coach Claude Julien is targeting next week as a possible return date for Kessel, who had more force on his wrist shots than he did Thursday . . . Shawn Thornton didn't practice and will miss his third straight game today. Julien said Thornton (undisclosed injury) will skate this morning . . . The Rangers (eighth place, 89 points) could be a possible first-round matchup for the Bruins. "It's probably not a bad thing because it keeps you sharp and motivated to play those games and puts some more emphasis on being successful," Julien said of playing potential first-round opponents like the Rangers and Canadiens. "They're going to come out and give everything they've got. They're fighting for their lives. [Today], I think you can certainly erase the number of points you have in the standings and really look at this as a pretty tough game to play."

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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