BOSTON – The Boston Bruins couldn’t trade Tim Thomas over the summer.

Now they can’t afford to let him go.

The 2009 Vezina Trophy winner and 2010 Olympic silver medalist is back from a hip injury that left him on the bench for the Bruins and the U.S. team in Vancouver. Now he’s recovered from offseason surgery and proving to be even better than when he was the NHL’s leading goaltender two years ago.

“At this level, if you stop trying to improve, you’re going to get left behind,” Thomas said Friday after the Bruins prepared for the return of the Philadelphia Flyers today. “I think the amount of years I have left in my career are limited. I want to see how good I can be, for as long as I can.”

At 36 — old enough to have been drafted by the Quebec Nordiques — Thomas is still getting better at an age when most athletes’ skills are declining. He leads all qualifying goalies in win percentage (.833), save percentage (.955) and a dominating goals-against average (1.49), and his five shutouts his season already match his career-high.

His success has rubbed off on his teammates, too, and it’s exactly what the franchise needed. Entering Friday’s action, the Bruins had 35 points, which was good for second place in the Northeast Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference. What’s more, they had played fewer games (27), than any other of the conference’s top eight teams. So, there’s plenty of time to climb up the playoff ladder.

This is all good news for a club that is still trying to shake last year’s nightmarish finish. After building an impressive 3-0 lead on the Flyers in the second round, the Bruins collapsed and lost four straight. Philadelphia, today’s opponent, eventually landed in the Stanley Cup finals.

Boston, meanwhile, went into an offseason of flux. Thomas, for all intents and purposes was a backup, and was about to enter the second season of a four-year, $20 million contract extension that left the Bruins second-guessed almost as soon as it was signed. But the contract may have kept the team from trading him last summer, after Thomas struggled on a balky left hip and lost his starting job to rookie Tuukka Rask.

“There’s always going to be rumors and discussions and stuff like that, and when you’re a professional athlete that’s part of the job,” Bruins President Cam Neely said. “But Tim’s so competitive. I mean, this guy’s one of the most competitive players I’ve seen. In practice, he hates to get scored on as much as he does in games, so it probably motivated him a little bit to come back and have the year that he’s having so far.”

And you don’t hear any trade talk in Boston any more. Certainly not in the Bruins’ locker room.

“As of right now, that’s not even in question,” forward Blake Wheeler said.

But during the summer it’s all anyone talked about.

“A lot of things are in question during the summer,” Wheeler said. “It’s different right now.”