Doubting Tim Thomas a bad move in Boston yet again
The Boston backstop was asked about all the focus he is putting on improving his technique, and how that had paid off during a 29-save, 4-0 win in Ottawa.
“A ton,” Thomas told New England Sports Network. “It helped me a lot actually. To be quite honest my legs weren’t as fresh as they’ve been in other games and that’s where technique really helps you out on nights like this, where maybe you are not moving as good. Even though I’m still moving pretty good, just not as well as other nights, so being in position is very helpful.”
It’s hard to imagine there are any nights Thomas hasn’t felt good this season.
Renewed by a surgically repaired left hip, the 36-year-old had an October that would have made Reggie Jackson blush, finishing with consecutive road shutouts of Ottawa and Toronto, a mind-boggling .984 save percentage, and a 0.50 goals-against average that is the lowest in the expansion era (1967-68) through six games. He also tied the Bruins’ record for the fastest start in goal with his perfect record matching Tiny Thompson’s six-game mark some 73 years earlier.
“My nickname is Tank so Tiny and Tank in the record books,” Thomas joked in the post-game interview with the New England network. “It’s kind of funny.”
The way things are going so far, opposing shooters probably don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But it’s a safe bet a few of them – not to mention most casual observers and more than a few “hockey experts” – chuckled when they heard Thomas talk post-game about the importance of improved technique between the pipes.
“Isn’t this the guy who confuses barrel rolls with a butterfly,” they ask.
Make no mistake, though, behind all the acrobatics that make highlights reels is a real attempt to tighten up technically, even if the final save selections – especially on second or third opportunities, or in a scramble – look less than orthodox.
Most only see Thomas on his butt in the splits robbing Alex Ovechkin from point blank range during impressive back-to-back wins over the Capitals last week. Fewer notice a pair of proper recovery pushes with the left leg in order to track Ovechkin across the crease seconds before. Ditto a splits-save on Jason Spezza in Ottawa and the strong right-to-left push that preceded it.
Five years ago, Thomas wasn’t even familiar with the idea of proper leg recovery and now he uses it without thinking, making it possible to get in position for those spectacular stops that have become the focal point for this “acrobat.”
“Most of it is played up in the media and I’ve done a good job of not letting it bother me,” Thomas once told InGoal Magazine of all the misconceived notions.
When it comes to Thomas, perception and reality rarely meet in the middle.
Thomas is known as the rough and tumble guy who has hunted bears with a bow and arrow. But he is also a guy who turned to yoga to improve his flexibility.
The Michigan native and University of Vermont grad played for nine teams in five leagues in three countries on two continents before finally getting one last shot to stick in the NHL. After moving his family back from Finland at the last minute he quickly won the Vezina Trophy, stardom and a spot on Team USA at the 2010 Olympics. But ask even now and he’ll tell you he would have been happy to finish his career where it started, winning games, fans and titles overseas.
“I had made peace with the prospect that I was never going to get a chance in the NHL and that I was going to finish my career in Finland, but it wasn’t such a bad thing,” Thomas once told InGoal. “And I almost decided to stay in Finland. It was a 50-50.”
Job security is another area where outside opinion has clashed with truth.
When the Bruins acquired Manny Fernandez from Minnesota three years ago, Thomas was thought to have “lost his job.” Two years later Fernandez was out of the NHL (injuries played a big role) and Thomas was atop it with the Vezina Trophy. And when Thomas spent the end of last year and playoffs on the bench watching Tuukka Rask, it was because he’d “lost his job” to the young Finn. Six months later we know it was because Thomas had been trying to play through a hip labrum torn so badly that his surgeon couldn’t believe he managed to play at all.
Never one to use it as an excuse last season, Thomas now admits the painful hip injury slowed his movements, forcing him to change his style and tweak his technique just to get through the season. He’s since told reporters that a lot of “bad habits” crept into his game “out of necessity” last year, forcing him to “really change” technically. He’s worked hard to get back to his old form, though again many may scoff at the acrobatic Thomas talking technique.
Thomas is used to it. This is, after all, a guy who was eight years into a pro career spent mostly in the minors and Europe when he went to his first goalie school – and was promptly ripped by a 10-year-old girl.
“I was an instructor, not a student,” Thomas once said of that first goalie camp with long-time Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa, who was trying to point out how well Thomas tracked the puck. But when Essensa asked the students about one play, the young girl pointed out his legs open as he moved laterally. “I ended up being a student because it was the first goalie school I had ever been to in my life. I had 10-year-old girls critiquing every move I made out there.”
That was the summer of 2005, and Thomas was coming off a dominant season in Finland during the NHL lockout, recording 15 shutouts in just 54 games and being named Most Valuable Player. Yet he was still scheduled to return to Finland, and had in fact already moved his family over, when the Bruins came calling because Andrew Raycroft was holding out over a contract dispute. By the time Thomas dragged his family back across the Atlantic, Raycroft had re-signed. Thomas started in the minors, but injuries opened the door, and five years later his .919 career save percentage in the NHL is a shade better than highly regarded goalies like Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo.
So how is it that so many pundits – not to mention 29 NHL teams over the eight seasons Thomas spent in the minor leagues and Europe – could be so wrong?
At 5-foot-11, Thomas was never a towering presence in what was becoming a big-goalie’s game. And as a 10th-round pick of the since-relocated Quebec Nordiques in 2004, he was never got the benefit of the doubt afforded so many other top prospects. But above all they probably just saw his style – or more specifically what appeared at times to be a lack of it – an acrobatic, sometimes flailing approach, and just like the 10-year-old girl found it easy to criticize.
What most didn’t see even after he won the Boston job was that underneath all those flashy five-alarm stops was a steadily improving technical base. Most didn’t know that in the summers that followed that rude welcome to goalie school, Thomas was putting the same effort that went into his sprawling, circus-act stops into revamping both his body and his puck-stopping approach, working with Essensa and Eli Wilson, partners at World Pro schools in Calgary.
By 2007-08, Thomas was seeing the results pay off as that basic recovery technique – lifting the power leg, rotating the hips, and pushing across in a butterfly slide – started to become innate.
“I actually had instances where I’ve used the ‘correct’ technique so to speak and I’ve thought ‘gee, that was easy, I wish I would have learned that a long time ago’,” he told InGoal that season. “That’s one that we’ve been practicing for a couple of years, but it’s just starting to show up more reliably in my day-to-day game this year because I’ve practiced it long enough. When it gets into a game I’m not the type of guy who is going to think ‘I should move this way or I should move that way.’ It takes away from my game. Game-time I just concentrate on playing and in practice, I practice the right technique and then eventually it just shows up in my game.”
That this was a goalie in his third year in the NHL and 10th as a pro making these statements may come as a shock to many young goaltenders that learn it from a young age these days. But it is a function of both Thomas’s age and his ability to succeed without it, something he did right through a standout four-year NCAA career at the University of Vermont that ended in 1997.
“I was kind of trained late as a goalie, so to speak,” said Thomas, who was also on two US entries at the World Championships during college. “I kind of grew up doing whatever worked for me, with no real – I don’t want to say I didn’t have any goalie coaches – but I was always so successful at a young age that they didn’t change anything, I guess. Plus the butterfly technique, it’s pretty recent. I mean Patrick Roy didn’t really come out with the butterfly technique and people didn’t start copying it until I was already 20 or 21.”
Thomas actually got his first taste of that copycat syndrome a few years later while attending his first pro camp with what was now the Colorado Avalanche – and from none other than Roy’s NHL goalie coach at the time, Jacques Cloutier. But the Avalanche never signed Thomas, who attended both the rookie and main camps without a contract, touching off a long, winding journey throughout the minor leagues of North America and top professional leagues in Europe.
When Thomas returned to the NHL for good, coaching had changed.
“Now they try to find a way to make the game easier and that’s fine with me,” Thomas told InGoal, adding some of the new techniques integrated into his game slower (like the backside butterfly recovery push) and others (like post play behind the nets)were faster.
The key is figuring out what works for him and getting comfortable with it with practice repetitions. No goaltender wants to be consciously thinking about technique during the play, but as one that relied for so long on his ability to react, it was especially important to Thomas. It was also important not to try to stuff any square pegs into round holes.
“You have to be able to shut it off during the game and not worry about how you look making the save, because that’s what happens when you start thinking to much about technique during a game you’ll make the save your old way and you’ll be like ‘oh I should have made it this way’ and you can’t really think like that. Who cares? You made the save,” said Thomas.
“And some things have to be modified. The technique has turned into a big goalie’s technique; it’s easier for a big guy. Some things I’ll never be able to do, or I can do them, but I feel it’s better to do it a more traditional way rather than the new butterfly technique simply because I’m only 5-foot-11 and my shoulders don’t cover the top of the net like (new partner) Alex Auld or a Roberto Luongo. I have to stand up more basically. I have to, in most situations, make sure they’re shooting where I can reach it in a butterfly before I use the butterfly.”
For Thomas, developing “stand-up” patience on his own – and the play-reading experience to know when to use how much of it – has made it easier to add a more consistent, fundamentally sound technical base – without worrying about relying too much on it. In other words, he can still make a reactionary save rather than just blocking all the time, something he has seen a little among some of the younger students while instructing at Wilson’s goalie schools. (Ironically Auld himself would later tell InGoal how much he learned about the importance of competing and never giving up on a save during a stint with Thomas in Boston).
“The kids were really learning the technique well, but I noticed some of them were turning into robots,” he said. “For that perfect shot that goes high glove they weren’t even moving their glove to try to get it, they were just assuming it was going to hit them. So I think the danger of counting totally on technique is there. If you make someone play the exact same way, some don’t develop that other part of the game. So in some ways it might be easier coming from my direction. You’d know whether the kids have the hand-eye earlier. It’s getting hard to judge young goalies that are 18, 19 years old because they all look the same and you can’t tell until they go up against a higher caliber of players whether they have that extra gear – the improv in their game – or not.”
There’s little question Thomas has it. Just try not to judge him by it.