Twist and turns

Thomas has taken his unorthodox style on a long journey to NHL stardom

In his journey to the NHL, Tim Thomas adopted aspects of several goaltending styles. In his journey to the NHL, Tim Thomas adopted aspects of several goaltending styles. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / January 30, 2011

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RALEIGH, N.C. — For goalies, the NHL is no place for snowflakes. It is a cookie-cutter league, now more than ever, one that prefers identical approaches over independent thinking. The preferred blueprint is that of Tuukka Rask: taller than 6 feet, flexible as Gumby, glove up, imposing even when down on his pads, most certainly playing the butterfly style.

Among that uniformity, the 5-foot-11-inch, 201-pound Tim Thomas is as unique as the white mask that protects his head (he prefers vertical bars instead of the universal cat’s-eye design).

“I do play differently,’’ said Thomas, “than just about anybody in the world.’’

Today at the RBC Center, Thomas will appear in his third All-Star Game. It is just one of the stick salutes that could culminate with the Bruins goaltender winning his second Vezina Trophy in three years.

Thomas’s game, born from a battler’s approach and a creative hockey mind, has made him the best goalie on Earth right now. That style, developed in six states (Michigan, Vermont, Alabama, Texas, Rhode Island, Massachusetts) and four countries (United States, Canada, Sweden, Finland), has more in common with a tornado than an efficient Swiss timepiece.

When a forward tiptoes into his crease, Thomas doesn’t hesitate to chop him with his stick or step around him to get a better view of the play. If a shooter slashes into his slot, Thomas often employs a backstroke-like swim move to foil any second shot — he’s assuming he’ll stop the first — that might be coming. When a stray puck bobbles into his view and teammates are nowhere in sight, Thomas will go into a full swan dive to nudge it out of dangerous situations.

“Thinking outside the box,’’ Thomas said. “I’m creative as far as finding different ways to get the job done. I might not necessarily have all the tools that other goalies have. But I’m willing to use my tools in creative ways.’’

Thomas’s style, however, once would have barred him entry to the NHL’s exclusive club of goalies. Not until 2005-06, when Thomas already had made peace with himself that his NHL window was closed, did he get his opportunity. Now, 29 other teams are paying the price for their short-sighted thinking.

Scouts unimpressed In the fall of 1997, after Thomas and Martin St. Louis had concluded college at the University of Vermont, they started their pro careers. Neither of the former UVM stars got an immediate chance. The diminutive St. Louis, one of college hockey’s most flammable scorers, wasn’t taken seriously by an NHL team until he signed with Tampa Bay in 2000.

Thomas, the hydrant-shaped goalie with the indescribable style, had been selected by the Quebec Nordiques in the ninth round of the 1994 draft but was dismissed by what were then the Colorado Avalanche after his first pro training camp.

“Everybody has their own story,’’ St. Louis said. “Some start later than others. Some finish later than others.’’

What scouts, coaches, and general managers saw was a helter-skelter scrambler. They didn’t even see Thomas as having a technique. In their eyes, Thomas was a goalie with an unheralded pedigree.

To be less kind, a flopper.

Thomas disagreed. In 1997-98, while playing for HIFK Helsinki, Thomas posted a 1.62 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage. Three years later, this time for Karpat, Thomas had a 2.45 GAA and a .925 save percentage.

They were numbers that should have merited at least a sniff from NHL teams. But with limited viewings, scouts did not take a panoramic perspective of Thomas’s performance.

“I do stuff that people don’t associate with normal goaltending,’’ he said. “It’s one of my strengths.

“But if you’re looking as a goaltending scout, I don’t think they can stick their neck out to say that I’m going to be able to do it on a consistent basis. I think that’s what they were saying earlier in my career.

“Everybody who watched me loved the way I battled and played. They could see the success and the numbers. My agent was trying to sell that to everybody. But unless they’d seen me play all the time, I don’t think they could understand that I could be that good.’’

A point to prove So Thomas became a nomad. In the late 1990s, he played in Finland alongside future NHLers such as Olli Jokinen, Brian Rafalski, Jussi Jokinen, and Jarkko Ruutu. In 2004-05, during the NHL lockout, Brian Campbell and ex-Bruin Glen Metropolit were among Thomas’s teammates.

Thomas’s play outside the NHL prepared him for his eventual entrance. He stored every slight as mental ammunition. Physically, Thomas adapted to different games — in-tight North American, physical Finnish, precise Swedish.

“I have a well-rounded game,’’ he said. “I think every league I played in gave me a different discipline that I was exposed to.

“The NHL brings all of those together. The best players. The best defensive defensemen make it to the NHL. The best offensive defensemen make it to the NHL. The best passers make it to the NHL. The best shooters make it to the NHL.

“Each of the leagues that I played in had different kinds of talents and players.’’

In 2005-06, Thomas finally got his shot at age 31. He went 15-11-0 with a 2.26 GAA and a .923 save percentage for Scott Gordon’s AHL team in Providence, then went unclaimed when he was recalled by Boston. The following season, the first under new management, Thomas went 30-29-4 with a 3.13 GAA and a .905 save percentage.

In the summer of 2007, when Dave Lewis was fired as Bruins coach after one season, Thomas had to win the confidence of a new man, Claude Julien.

“I’ve always been one of those guys that’s said, ‘As long as the goaltender stops the puck, I don’t care,’ I really don’t,’’ said Julien. “You can get these goaltenders that are technically sound, but they can’t stop a puck.

“His compete level was there. At the same time, when I spoke to Timmy at the beginning, I said, ‘My job is to make it easier on you as best I can by getting a good structure in front of you so you don’t have to guess. You need to know how the players in front of you will react, which will help your style, too.’

“To me, he’s been good every year. Last year, he had a good year. Not a great year. But a bit of that was the result of his health.’’

What might have been In hindsight, the 2009-10 season, when Thomas went 17-18-8 with a 2.56 GAA and .915 save percentage, was an anomaly. Thomas, Ryan Miller’s Olympic backup and Rask’s No. 2 during the stretch run, was slowed by wear and tear in his left hip that ultimately would turn into a torn labrum.

This season, following surgery to fix the tear, Thomas is looking like a goalie who is still improving. After 36 appearances, he is 24-5-6 with a 1.81 GAA, a .945 save percentage, and seven shutouts. On Dec. 4 at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, Thomas made the save of the season when he dived to his left and gloved Francois Beauchemin’s overtime shot — a masterful mix of athleticism and awareness.

“When I’m on top of my game, I’m reading the game very well,’’ Thomas said. “Even when I’m not on top of my game, I’m still reading the game fairly well. A lot of that comes with experience.

“I think I’ve always had a good read for the game. But when you play as long as I have, it’s one of those things that develops and makes it easier.’’

Thomas’s brilliance has compensated somewhat for the brevity of his NHL career. After 2010-11, he will have two seasons left on a four-year, $20 million contract. To make a push for the Hall of Fame, Thomas would have to play beyond that deal — which, based on his current thinking, might not be likely.

“I have thought about it,’’ Thomas said. “But more in relation to my family than the hockey side. It’s a couple years away. I will be 38 by then. I’ll have to play how I feel about hockey by ear.

“My oldest daughter will be 12. They’ll be 12, 8, and 7 by then. You have to sacrifice a lot to be in the NHL as far as family home time and life. The way I’m looking at it right now is that I don’t want to miss their childhoods. I’m already missing too much as it is.’’

Which leads hockey followers to the question: How good could Thomas have been had his NHL chance arrived earlier?

Put him in the position of Rask, who was an NHL rookie at 22 last year. Plug in approximations of Thomas’s performance, stretch them out over 15 or so seasons, and the numbers could challenge those of Martin Brodeur (612 wins, 114 shutouts).

Thomas hasn’t given that much consideration. Instead, he combines his accomplishments from all of his stops to put his career into perspective.

“Those are my personal career statistics,’’ Thomas said. “If I look back on all of those, then I think I’ve put together a record to be proud of personally.’’

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