Should the Edmonton Oilers trade for Tim Thomas?

As has been widely reported, Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas – the two time Vezina winner, as well as the playoff MVP just one year ago – has decided to take a year off from hockey.

The problem for Boston – a contending, high-salary team – is that because Thomas’ contract is a 35+ deal, they have to absorb his cap hit whether he reports to training camp or not. Presumably, the team will attempt to trade him this summer.

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The interesting this is that for a team with some distance between themselves and the salary cap, there’s no real disincentive to acquiring Thomas; they don’t have to pay him. If he holds true to his decision to take the season off, the team with his rights can simply suspend him, absorb the cap hit, and not pay out a dime.

Boston has the cap room to handle it if they absolutely need to, but presumably would prefer not to. Tuukka Rask needs a new contract this summer, a number of forwards and defensemen are entering free agency, and the club has ~$10 million in cap space to work with. With Thomas off the books, that figure jumps to ~$15 million. For a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, that’s a big improvement.

There’s another interesting wrinkle. If Thomas takes the year off, the team that holds his contract has the option of tolling it; if they chose to, Thomas’ year off would not burn the final year of his contract. The Bruins would be unlikely to do that, as Fluto Shinzawa explains:

It is hard, however, to imagine the Bruins bringing back Thomas in 2013-14. Thomas would be 39, coming off a dark season. Also, Thomas’s $5 million cap obligation for next season might leave the Bruins bosses less than eager to grant him a return. The most likely scenario is for the Bruins to allow Thomas’s contract to expire after 2012-13.

For a team with salary cap space, the calculations are different. Thomas is only paid $3.0 million in the final year of his deal, so he’s cheaper than his cap hit. He should still have value as an asset even if he chooses not to play in 2012-13. A team with cap room to burn might very well opt to toll Thomas’ contract, forcing him to choose between another year off and reporting for work.

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With that taken into account, does it make sense for the Oilers to acquire Tim Thomas?

I would argue that they could do so, but it makes less sense for them than for other teams. The Oilers are not a budget club out of necessity; they are a budget club because they are rebuilding. In the summer of 2013, the contracts of Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle expire. The entire blue line, save for Nick Schultz and Corey Potter, will need new contracts between now and then. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will have a single year on his deal.

In other words, while the Oilers would have no problem taking on Thomas’ cap hit this year, if they opted to toll his contract there might be negative ramifications in 2013-14. Their situation is not ideal for a long-term game of hardball.

For other teams, however, Thomas could be a real boon. The floor of the salary cap is always $16 million below the upper limit, which means every team needs to find a way to hit $54.3 million on the salary cap this summer. If Thomas plays, than they get an elite goaltender with a $5 million cap hit for $3 million dollars. If Thomas does not play, they get $5 million in bogus cap hit for nothing, and the chance to get an elite goaltender the next year for $3 million dollars (again with the $5 million cap hit). Under the current CBA, for a team like the New York Islanders or Florida Panthers, that’s a heck of a bargain.

Someone out there should be very interested in Tim Thomas. The Oilers are probably not that someone.

Thomas’ no-move clause expires on July 1.

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This week by Jonathan Willis