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Ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas details mental health issues on day he's inducted into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

Ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas details mental health issues on day he's inducted into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

WASHINGTON — The tears rolled down Tim Thomas’ cheeks. 

Honored with induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the former Boston Bruins goalie, a Stanley Cup champion, one of the greatest American players of all time, spoke of the hard end to his playing career and the brain damage he sustained playing the sport he loved. 

While playing for the Florida Panthers in 2013-14, his final season, Thomas sustained a concussion that December which left him debilitated. It was an injury “that changed my life,” Thomas said. 

Speaking publicly for the first time since retiring from hockey in 2014, the reclusive Thomas, a Michigan native who now lives in Idaho with his family, described a darkening spiral. He awoke the morning after his concussion and couldn’t decide what he wanted to eat, where he wanted to go. He couldn’t plan a schedule. Thomas survived by just following the team schedule put together by the Panthers - and later, the Dallas Stars after a trade. 

One year after retiring, Thomas found he couldn’t keep up with the sport on television or in person. He underwent a CereScan, which measures the flow of blood to the brain by using radioactive isotopes. Thomas claims the numbers showed two thirds of his brain was getting less than five percent of the necessary blood flow and the other third was getting about 50 percent.    

“I've struggled mightily with how do I process the experience that I've been through and rectify that with the love of the game that I had my whole life until I crashed, so to speak,” Thomas said. “That happened. I still haven't worked my whole way through that process.”

Thomas was a late bloomer. He played four years at the University of Vermont and after turning pro bounced around minor leagues in North America and played in Europe, too. He was 31 before he earned a roster spot with Boston and 33 before he was the unquestioned No. 1 goalie. 

But he went on a brilliant seven-year run, winning the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie in 2008-09 and 2010-11. That year he led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. He also played for 2010 U.S. Olympic Team in Vancouver, which won the silver medal. Hockey brought him immense joy and he was thrilled to be honored with induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.       

"I can see the positive sides of the whole hockey life and everything. It doesn't take away from that,” Thomas said. “I guess, I don't know where I stand completely on the game of hockey at the levels where people are injuring themselves to the levels that they actually are and my involvement in that.”

That will take some time. The pain is still raw. Thomas’ wife and children suffered because he was suffering with his mental health. He couldn’t communicate with anybody for a few years. He didn’t call his dad - or his old teammates, who were still stuck in that hockey life he had left behind. He just didn’t want to bother anybody. His love for the game was part of the heavy price paid.  

“There was a time period, yeah, where I hated the game,” Thomas said. “I didn't sit there and (say) I hate it. My rebound effect was like, this wasn't worth it. That's where I was then. Where I am today is past that. I ended up learning so many lessons out of the experience.”

But that doesn’t mean normal. Thomas isn’t sure what that word even means at this point. He’s endured ups and downs and only started to feel like his old self about two years ago. Oxygen therapy helped, Thomas said, and he believes plenty of special mineral water did, too. He wouldn’t have been able to make the trip to Washington to take part in this ceremony otherwise. Better doesn’t mean fully healed, though   

“I still can’t choose,” Thomas said. “I’m so much better, but I wake up every day and basically I have to reorder everything in my mind for the first couple hours of the day and then make a list and try to make some choices to get some stuff done, on which I have gotten to the level that I can.”

Thomas spoke haltingly to the gathered reporters. He paused, choked up multiple times and tried to keep his composure. The tears rolled down his cheeks anyway. On what was a monumental day honoring his accomplishments on the ice, this was as big a part of his story as any of that. After six years, he is finally able to talk and he hopes current hockey players can learn from his struggles with mental health.   

"I didn't want to talk about this. I didn't want to talk,” Thomas said “I didn't want to tell the world this stuff. Not untill I felt ready, and I didn't feel ready yet. But here I am.”

The book “Game Change” written by former Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden helped, Thomas said. That story details the struggles of longtime NHL defenseman Steve Montador, who died in 2015 at age 35 and who researchers later determined had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the neurological disease caused by repeated head injuries.

Learning about Montador’s issues made Thomas realize he wasn’t unique, he wasn’t alone. He’s channeled the competitive drive that allowed him to become an elite NHL goalie and channeled that into learning about mental health. 

On Tuesday, Thomas attended his first NHL game since leaving the sport in 2014. Ironically, his old Bruins were in Washington to play the Capitals and the 2019 inductees were honored before the game. Thomas had only seen former teammate Johnny Boychuk a few years back, but otherwise had fallen out of touch with most others.

Tuesday, Thomas got to catch up with Bruins staffers still with the organization and also ex-teammates Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Kreiji. Those five are still with Boston and they were on the ice with Thomas that memorable night in Vancouver eight years ago when they won the Stanley Cup together. 

Seeing them again was a blast, even if for a short time - a chance to immerse himself in a game that had given him so much but for a long time has been lost to him. 

"Being welcomed back into the arms of the hockey family has been great,” Thomas said. “It's reminded me of all the great people that I crossed paths with all throughout my career. It's been very impactful."

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Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

See Monday's breakdown of the team's offense here.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stats
2.90 goals against per game (10th in the NHL)
84.2-percent penalty kill (2nd)

Whatever question marks this team may have on the blue line, John Carlson is not one of them. With 60 points in 49 games, he is on pace for exactly 100 points this season, but do not fall into the trap of thinking his great season is only about the offense. He is easily the most consistent defensive defenseman on the team as well. He is just an all-around elite player who was long ago labeled an "offensive defenseman" and that perception still lingers though it has not been factual since the 2017-18 season when Matt Niskanen was out for a prolonged period and Carlson was leaned upon and excelled.

Carlson has obviously been the highlight of the blue line this season, which is to be expected. Jonas Siegenthaler and Radko Gudas have also been bright spots. The penalty kill has essentially been entrusted to Siegenthaler who gets more shorthanded ice time per game (3:06) than any player on the roster, including Carl Hagelin. Gudas is not far behind at 2:43. 

The benefit to this is that this is the team's third defensive pair, yet they are doing the heavy-lifting on the penalty kill allowing the other two pairs who play more minutes 5-on-5 to get some time to rest. The fact that the penalty kill remains among the league's best even with the third pair running the show is a luxury that not many teams can boast.

Dmitry Orlov has been up and down, but he fits the mold of a second-pair offensive defenseman. I view him as more of an asset than a liability and his possession numbers (54.91 Corsi-For percentage) back that up.

Having said that, there are a few major concerns on the blue line. The first is that this team does not have two top-four right defensemen. Carlson is the only one. Nick Jensen has been playing on the second pair, but it is clear that he just cannot handle such a significant role. He has been with the Caps for nearly a full calendar year at this point and his struggles can no longer be dismissed as him simply adjusting to a new team and system. The change in system was a dramatic shift for him as it requires a lot more crossing over onto the left side, something he does not seem to be comfortable with at all. He's not a bad player and I would feel comfortable with him as a third-pair defenseman. In fact, Jensen averages 2:12 per game shorthanded, more than Carlson (1:38) or Michal Kempny (1:25), so he has held a major role on Washington's stellar penalty kill. The problem can be boiled down to this: The Caps have two third-pair caliber right defensemen and only one top four. 

The second issue is that Kempny has not played at the level of a top-pair defenseman essentially all season. In comparison to the issues on the right, this is a minor flaw. Kempny's issues are not nearly as blatant and he is rarely caught out of position. The issue mainly has been how weak on the puck he has been.

One team issue has been how Washington performs against an aggressive forecheck. I will label that a defensive issue because the issue comes from the defensive zone. Everyone on the team has to be smarter with puck management and distribution, but especially the blueliners who are often tasked with starting the breakouts. They have to be able to distribute the puck quickly and smartly in the face of that pressure. This was a major factor in the team's loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round the last playoffs and has seemingly been an issue in the regular season as well.

The only other defensive issue has to do with the penalty kill. Yes, the PK has been stellar, but it has been called upon far too often. Washington has taken 186 minor penalties this season, more than any other team in the NHL. Sure, sometimes the referees like to put away the whistles in the postseason, but the Caps are a physical team that plays a heavy game. That could open them up to more penalties. Most importantly, the team has to be smarter with their sticks and limit unnecessary slashes and hooks.

The verdict: No, the defense is not good enough to win the Cup...yet.

A hole on the top-four is a significant enough weakness that I do not believe the team can afford to ignore it heading into the playoffs.

But don't despair. While I do not believe the current makeup of the defense is good enough, it is not beyond repair. Only one addition is needed to completely shore up the blue line. This team needs an adequate player to plug onto the right side of the second pair. They don't need a superstar, just a serviceable top-four righty. That addition would imrpove the defense to the point of making the team a real contender.

Top four defensemen do not grow on trees, however, especially right ones, and the team's cap constraints will certainly hurt their ability to improve in this area.

This leaves me with two possible solutions the team could explore.

First, and probably the most likely, look for the next Kempny. Find a cheap defenseman on another team's roster who the scouts think has high-upside and is undervalued by his current team, trade a mid-round draft pick and plug him in. The fact that Washington was able to recall Christian Djoos after the Christmas break means Washington has at least banked enough cap space to fit in his cap hit ($1.2 million). Brian MacLellan seems deadset on keeping the roster with only one healthy scratch to bank as much cap space as possible so I think they should have probably at least about $2 million to work with by the time the Feb. 24 trade deadline rolls around. Plus, there is always salary retention, though that would cost more in a trade.

The second option is to bring up Martin Fehervary. He is a left shot, but has been playing on the right with the Hershey Bears. The team certainly loves him which was made evident by him starting the season in the NHL. Even if he may not have reached his full potential yet, he is certainly seen within the organization as a top-four caliber player so bring him up and try him out. For this option, I would like to see him called up sooner rather than later in order to get as much time as possible to adjust to the NHL, but even if this option is on the table, I would not anticipate seeing it until after the trade deadline when the team no longer needs to continue banking that space.

One last note, for anyone wondering if Djoos could be a possibility, I do not see that happening. In his two games with the team this season, he was not put on the ice for a single defensive zone start whether on the fly or off a faceoff. Not one. It is a small sample size, but that shows me there is a lack of trust in him from the coaches when it comes to playing in the defensive zone. That does not sound like a realistic candidate to slot into the top four anytime soon. 

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Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stats
3.55 goals per game (1st in the NHL)
20.3-percent power play (13th in the NHL)

Goal leaders
1. Alex Ovechkin 34
2. Jakub Vrana 22
3. T.J. Oshie 18

Assist leaders
1. John Carlson 47
2. Nicklas Backstrom 29
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 26

Point leaders
1. John Carlson 60
2. Alex Ovechkin 50
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 42

Just in case you forgot about Ovechkin, he just let everyone know that yes, he is still outrunning Father Time with eight goals in the past three games. He remains one of the top scorers in the league, that is beyond dispute and so is this team's the top-six.

Backstrom, Wilson, Vrana, Kuznetsov and Oshie round out one of the best top two lines in the NHL. There are only a few minor concerns with this group.

Vrana and Kuznetsov have proven to be streaky performers. When they are hot, they are among the top offensive players in the NHL. Vrana is actually tied with David Pastrnak for third in the NHL in even-strength goals with 21. He is as dangerous a goal-scorer as just about anyone in the league. And everyone knows how good Kuznetsov can be at his peak. Just look at the 2018 Cup run.

You just have to cross your fingers and hope Vrana and Kuznetsov don’t get cold in the postseason because when their production tapers off, it craters.

Moving on to the bottom-six, let’s start with the fourth line because it is easier. Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway is one of, if not the outright best fourth line in hockey. They are able to hem opponents into the offensive zone and allow very little in the way of scoring opportunities. If you put any credence into things like Corsi, Nic Dowd is the best on the team with a Corsi-For percentage of 57.22 while Leipsic is 54.04 and Hathaway is 54.43. In a nutshell, what that means is this line is generating a heck of a lot more offensive opportunities than it is allowing which is a huge asset to have for a fourth line.

What’s more, these guys are the kind of players you hate to play against. Hathaway and Leipsic both play with an edge and Leipsic has a fair amount of speed as well. They have to make sure they limit the penalties they take, but otherwise this line is a huge asset.

That brings us to the third line.

While the offense is starting to pick up slightly, overall the numbers have just not been there. Lars Eller is doing fine with 11 goals and 16 assists, but Richard Panik is having a tough first year with five goals and five assists while Carl Hagelin has only three goals and eight assists and that’s including the two goals he scored in the past week.

Even as the line continues to improve, I do not think at its peak it is going to prove to be as good offensively as once hoped.

The third line has definitely found a role as a shutdown line, however, which is how Reirden has been utilizing them of late, using them to shut-down one of the opposition’s top lines both to limit their offense and also to free up Ovechkin’s line by getting it away from that matchup.

That’s easier to do at home, now Reirden has to figure out just how to best utilize the third line one the road where it is tougher to get the matchups you want.

Overall, however, this line is trending in the right direction. The power play, however, is not.

Though it ranks 13th in the NHL, that percentage is being propped up by a good start. Since Dec. 1, the power play ranks 30th in the NHL at 14.1-percent. The offense has just been non-existent. The struggles have clearly gone to the head of the players because it becomes a comedy of errors on the ice every time the team gets the man advantage. Reirden has tried Vrana on the top unit in Kuznetsov’s spot, but that spot is not well suited for Vrana as he is a sniper and Kuznetsov plays primarily around the goal line where shots are hard to come by. Kuznetsov on the second unit is largely wasted as there is not enough scoring talent on that unit for him to set up.

The result is two power play units playing without confidence and not producing while also allowing far too many shorthanded goals.

The verdict: Yes, the Caps have the offense to win the Cup.

In terms of the personnel, it is hard to get better than what the Caps have. The top two lines are loaded with talent and the fourth line is the best at what it does. The offense is lacking on the third line, but Reirden has found a role for it in which it can still have a positive impact on the game and its offensive production seems to be improving.

The only real concern is the power play, not only because it is completely ineffective but because the team is pressing so hard it has allowed five shorthanded goals, tied for the most in the league. As bad as it is, however, I think this is a case of frustration making things worse. With the personnel this team has, there is no reason for it to be producing at only 14.1-percent. Once they string a few goals together, things will turn around. I don’t think it will be among the most potent in the NHL, but I do think this is a low point and a natural progression will occur.

After the power play, however, it is hard to find a more potent offense than the one assembled in Washington.

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