By now, everyone not under a rock with regard to hockey news knows that Tim Thomas has decided to take a year off from hockey. Some have speculated that this is merely an opening salvo in some sort of trade ploy, but right now it doesn't appear that way. Peter Chiarelli and the Boston Bruins have to prepare as if Tim Thomas will not be on the team next year.
Normally this wouldn't be an issue - Thomas and the Bruins could go their separate ways, and the Bruins would probably let Thomas's contract expire. However, Tim Thomas signed his most recent contract past the age of 35, which invokes the onerous 35+ rule: For any multi-year contract that begins after a player's 35th birthday, each year past the first counts on the salary cap regardless of whether or not the player is playing. The only way a 35+ player won't count on the cap is if he is placed on Injured Reserve, and the league has previously sent doctors to confirm that a player is in fact injured. So, the Bruins now have $5M in dead weight on their salary cap next year. For a team that considers themselves a Cup contender, that's a challenging millstone for Boston to maneuver around.
There is one way out: the trade. Tim Thomas can still be traded, and after July 1, he no longer has a no-trade clause, so he can be dealt anywhere. This gets into some interesting territory, as there is some precedent, back in the autumn of 2006 when a player posting about his sabbatical on Facebook was only a far-off dream. Vladimir Malakhov did not report to Devils' training camp despite being under contract, and was therefore suspended by the team. He was also a 35+ contract, so the Devils were pretty sure they would be on the hook for it. They ended up making a deal with the Sharks: they traded Malakhov and a 1st round pick for the rights to Shark winger Alex Korolyuk and defenseman Jim Fahey. Devils' GM Lou Lamoriello insisted at the time that this was a 'hockey trade', and said of Korolyuk: We're getting an exceptional hockey player who could play for us next year." That never happened, and Fahey got into 13 games as a Devil before being demoted to the AHL. However, he did at least try to make this look like a hockey trade - the Devils received two players, and gave up one of their own and a draft pick.
The salary cap landscape is much different now than it was in 2006 - back then, when the cap was at $47 million, there weren't very many teams at the cap floor. The Devils had to trade a 1st round pick for table scraps just for someone to take on the Malakhov deal. However, things may be different this time around - we see teams like the Islanders signing veteran players to small deals with large bonuses to hit the salary floor. Floor teams would love to have a contract like Thomas's on their books - it counts $5M on the cap, and costs $0 in actual money. It would be an enormous boost to their bottom lines, especially as the salary floor threatens to be around $55M this season. There should be multiple teams waiting in line to get a chance at that Thomas contract. There's only one potential roadblock: the NHL front office.
While it's hard to imagine the NHL front office jumping for joy at the way Lamoriello squirmed out of Malakhov's 35+ cap hit, one thing that's notable about the Malakhov trade is that while Malakhov neglected to show up for Devils' training camp, neither he nor his agent said anything at all about his playing status. He never signed retirement papers, nor did he find a college student with Internet access to post a statement on The Facebook. The Devils had suspended him about halfway through the previous season and he disappeared. Therefore, the league couldn't really nix the Malakhov trade on those grounds - the Sharks could claim that they felt Malakhov would show up to their training camp and would play for them. Furthermore, the Sharks put enough other detritus into the trade to make it appear like it wasn't just Malakhov and a 1st round pick for nothing. Lastly, since we saw what a cap circumvention penalty might look like after the Kovalchuk debacle last summer, the Devils didn't get out of it for free - they still surrendered a first-round pick. League officials might've recognized that since the Devils extracted their own pound of flesh, there wasn't much call for them to step in to get another piece.
Given the league's tightening the screws about the whole lifetime contract thing, and a CBA fight about to happen this summer and likely on into the autumn, it's difficult to imagine they won't have anything to say if Thomas ends up pawned off to a team with two signed goalies for a draft pick in July or August. He's already said he isn't playing, so why would a team trade for him? Can Facebook posts by a player be reason enough to nix a trade, or to accuse a team of cap circumvention? It doesn't sound all that exciting, but since we may not have NHL hockey to watch for a while, these sorts of fights are the next best thing.