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Offseason questions await the Bruins

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / April 27, 2012
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The process of rebuilding the Bruins for 2012-13 will begin promptly.

On Friday, the team will report to TD Garden for, among other things, exit interviews with general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien. From those sessions, the organization will begin to shape the game plan for next season.

It begins with the goaltending situation.

On July 1, Tim Thomas’s no-movement clause will expire. On the same day, Tuukka Rask will become a restricted free agent. The decisions the Bruins make on Thomas and Rask will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the lineup.

Thomas, 38, has one season remaining on a four-year, $20 million contract. He has not said whether he will push for another deal - perhaps the last of his career - or hang up his equipment at the conclusion of 2012-13.

Statistically, a case can be made that Thomas is the best goalie in franchise history. In 378 games, he has 196 wins, a 2.48 goals-against average, a .921 save percentage, and 31 shutouts. Despite his narrow career spectrum (he has made 19 fewer appearances than Montreal’s Ken Dryden), Thomas’s dominance could make him a Hockey Hall of Fame candidate. For a man who is keenly in tune with the sport’s history, it would be an honor he would love to achieve.

Whether he can pursue that while wearing Black and Gold has yet to be determined.

This season, Thomas went 35-19-1, with a 2.36 GAA and .920 save percentage; he was not the dominant presence of last year (35-11-9, 2.00, .938). Instead, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, and Los Angeles’s Jonathan Quick emerged as the NHL’s elite netminders. Thomas slipped to the second level, with Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff, Phoenix’s Mike Smith, and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo.

In the playoffs, Thomas went 3-4 with a 2.14 GAA and .923 save percentage as the Bruins lost to the Capitals in seven games. Washington’s Braden Holtby (4-3, 2.00, .940) was a hair better, and a significant reason the Capitals advanced to the second round.

If the Bruins move Thomas, Rask would assume the No. 1 job, pending negotiations that result in a extension. Anton Khudobin would be Rask’s backup.

The Bruins could then apply Thomas’s $5 million annual cap hit elsewhere.

The Capitals smothered Boston’s top two lines. Milan Lucic had three assists but no goals. David Krejci, the NHL’s leading playoff scorer last season, had just one goal. Without No. 1 right wing Nathan Horton, the Bruins had to have other players assume greater responsibilities.

During last year’s postseason, Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley took most of their shifts on the third line. By Game 6 of this year’s first round, Seguin was the No. 1 right wing and Peverley was the second-line right wing. The No. 3 line of Benoit Pouliot, Chris Kelly, and Brian Rolston started the first round with a bang, scoring three goals in the first three games. But they faded.

New Jersey’s Zach Parise is scheduled to reach unrestricted free agency July 1, and if he doesn’t re-sign with the Devils, he will be the market’s top prize. Parise could ask for $7 million or more per year. He played for Julien in 2006-07.

Trading Thomas, however, is no guarantee. He might have slipped slightly, but he remains the Bruins’ most important player. Rask, 25, who recovered from a lower abdomen/groin strain, has a history of knee ailments. He has never played more than 45 games in a season.

Goaltending is the team’s position of strength, and the Bruins could decide to make one more postseason push next year with the Thomas-Rask tandem.

There will be teams seeking netminding upgrades. Toronto, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Florida, Edmonton, and Columbus should be active in that market. But other goalies may be available this offseason.

Luongo is willing to waive his no-trade clause. The Flames, eager to rebuild, might move Kiprusoff. Youngsters such as Jonathan Bernier and Anders Lindback, parked behind franchise goalies in Quick and Rinne, could be swapped for other assets. Teams seeking inexpensive free agents will kick the tires on Washington’s Tomas Vokoun and Minnesota’s Josh Harding.

Given the market and Thomas’s age, the Bruins would not receive much in return for him. The primary benefit would be cap relief.

The Bruins defense won’t undergo major changes. Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference, and Johnny Boychuk should be the top four. Assuming good health, Adam McQuaid will have his usual spot on the third pairing.

The Bruins project Dougie Hamilton, their first-round pick from 2010, to make the varsity next season. If Hamilton doesn’t make the big club, he must return to his junior team in Niagara.

Matt Bartkowski could jump from Providence to Boston as a depth defenseman. Joe Corvo, Mike Mottau, and Greg Zanon will be unrestricted free agents.

But the Bruins will need some up-front upgrades. It is not guaranteed that Horton can overcome post-concussion syndrome and be ready for the start of 2012-13. Even if Horton is healthy, he can’t be expected to regain his offensive touch promptly.

Horton, who suffered a severe concussion in Game 3 of last season’s Stanley Cup Final, wasn’t comfortable at the start of this season. The Bruins would like to add a scoring presence on the wing to serve as a Horton fill-in.

They will also have to bolster their bottom-six attack. In last year’s postseason, the third line of Kelly, Peverley, and Michael Ryder was a difference-making threesome, especially in the opening round against Montreal.

Kelly will reach UFA status July 1. Kelly, an alternate captain, has been a perfect fit since arriving from Ottawa. But he will demand an increase from his $2.125 million annual salary. The Bruins do not have any prospects ready to serve as a No. 3 center, leader, and penalty killer.

Pouliot (16-16-32) also will become a restricted free agent. He will seek a raise from his $1.1 million salary. The 39-year-old Rolston will not be re-signed.

The Bruins must also address the fourth line, which was outplayed by Washington’s grinders. Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell will be free to walk July 1. Prospect Lane MacDermid could be an internal candidate to assume fourth-line responsibilities. Shawn Thornton’s two-year extension will kick in next season.

Of course, the wild card is the unspeakable prospect: no 2012-13 season. With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire Sept. 15, there is no guarantee the season will start on time. The salary cap, currently at $64.3 million, could go down. Player salaries could be rolled back.

The Bruins have questions. They didn’t want to start addressing them so soon.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.

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