Without Tim Thomas, will Boston go after Rick Nash?

NEWARK – If you connect the dots, the possibility of Tim Thomas taking next season off could make the Boston Bruins the leading contender to land Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets this summer.

Here’s why. When Thomas signed his four-year $20 million deal with the Bruins in 2009, he did so as a 35-year-old player, which means the Bruins must absorb his yearly cap hit every year of the contract regardless of whether he’s injured or retires before the deal expires. For that reason, the Bruins will have to take on his $5 million cap hit next season regardless of what Thomas decides.

But Thomas does not owe that year to the Bruins in the future unless they hold him to the commitment, which they certainly won’t be doing. That means if Thomas doesn’t play, the Bruins are charged $5 million against the cap next season and Thomas will become an unrestricted free agent for 2013-14. The Bruins could also terminate the contract if Thomas isn’t there when the season begins and Thomas would become a UFA immediately, but the Bruins would still be on the hook for $5 million against the cap without having any chance to trade him. The third option would be the Bruins would force Thomas to honor the final year of his deal if he decides to return after taking a year off, but they would be charged $5 million against the cap next season and $5 million in 2013-14. Not a likely scenario.

So here’s where it gets interesting for the Bruins. Thomas’ no-trade clause runs out July 1, so the Bruins would be free to trade his rights to a team trying to get up to the salary cap floor, which will be $54.3 million if reports that the upper end of the cap will be $70.3 million next season are accurate.

That would make Thomas very attractive to a team trying to get up to the lower end of the cap, because it would be acquiring a $5 million cap hit without having to pay any of the salary. And if Thomas were to decide to change his mind and play, the team acquiring him would still be getting an elite goalie whose salary in real dollars is only $3 million. (That’s because Thomas received $17 million of the $20 million in actual salary in the first three years of his deal.)

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Whether the Bruins will actually trade Thomas remains to be seen. They are already getting $4 million in cap relief from having Marc Savard on the long-term injury list so it might not be necessary from a cap-management standpoint. But dumping the Thomas cap hit would give the Bruins a lot of room to chase unrestricted free agents in the summer or the flexibility to trade for the $7.8 million cap hit Nash carries. In fact, Thomas could actually be part of a deal with Columbus for the Bruins to acquire Nash.

(Please realize, however, we are not saying this is what will necessarily happen. But you can’t deny that it certainly provides a host of interesting possibilities. There is a fit with Columbus and the Nash deal on so many levels.)

The one wildcard in all of this, of course, is that next season will be governed by a new collective bargaining agreement, that will likely have a new salary cap and might not have a salary floor. The new agreement may also change the rules for players 35-and-over who sign multi-year contracts.

Whatever the case, Thomas’ agent was very clear that his client’s decision has absolutely nothing to do with any factor other than Thomas is both mentally and physically drained and might need a year off to decide his future. Bill Zito, who represents Thomas, said the goalie’s off-ice travails that included criticism for not visiting the White House with his teammates had nothing to do with the decision.

“I can say that what Peter (Bruins GM Chiarelli) said in his news conference about the combination of fatigue and wanting to spend time with his family is accurate,” Zito said. “I can also say categorically that this has nothing to do with seeking a (contract) extension or a trade or anything to do with the business side of hockey.”

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.