By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE, Fla.–The spirit of “Let’s play two” was in the air at the BB&T Center on Monday, but it was what happened before and during Game 1 against the Nashville Predators that had the media buzzing.
Before Game 1 as I was entering the press entrance of the arena, I spotted 2-time Vezina and 1-time Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas – last seen on the ice leading the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup title 17 months ago; this time clad in shorts in warm South Florida – walking out of the building and getting ready to drive up to the practice facility. It was later announced that Panthers GM Dale Tallon would speak after the first intermission. The Predators built a 3-1 lead at the break of the first game of the doubleheader, but all the attention was in meeting Tallon outside Florida’s dressing room.
He quickly confirmed that Thomas had accepted a tryout offer from the Panthers and then outlined where the 39-year-old former University of Vermont netminder fit in with the club, which lost backup Scott Clemmensen to minor knee surgery earlier this month.
“He won a Stanley Cup the last time he played. He had a big responsibility in that. He’s a two-time Vezina Trophy winner. We need goaltending. We need someone to help us go where we need to go. Right now, it’s Tim Thomas. He’s going to get an opportunity,” Tallon said.
Rumors surfaced last week that the Panthers, needing to shore up its goaltending situation, has made tryout offers to both Thomas and former Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who was an amnesty buyout by the Flyers in the offseason.
The Thomas rumors proved to be real, in fact becoming reality. When Thomas was last on the ice, he led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup title with a 4-0 Game 7 shutout of Vancouver. He was phenomenal in the series, stopping 238 of 246 shots by the Canucks. He posted a 1.98 goals against average the entire postseason.
While 23-year-old Jacob Markstrom appeared to be the incumbent in Florida’s crease, Tallon said he expects Thomas, who took last year off to spend with family, to come in and make a strong bid for the starting spot.
“He’s in good shape. He’s eager to go. He’s been working hard all year. Mentally, physically, he’s strong. He’ll compete for a starting position. That’s so important. You want to bring in people who really care, who will work hard and will show the young guys the way. He’s a prototypical professional who works extremely hard in practice and off the ice. He’s very dedicated to his profession,” Tallon said.
“He’s got a great pedigree. He’s worked hard all his life to get to where he is. He’s going to continue to work hard. We’ve had great discussions. I believe in what he says. I trust him. He’ll be a valuable asset to us.
“He wants to be the starter. He wants to be the guy. That’s what I want from all our players. I want them to all think they’re the guy and be the guy. I don’t want guys who want to be backups or third- or fourth-line guys. I want them to be the best they can be, battle for positions to be the best player on the team.”
Widely regarded as a tireless worker, Thomas should set a strong example to the young players like he was to current Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, Tallon said.
“That’s why he’s here. He’s here to help show the way to the young guys. Let he and Markstrom and Clemmensen battle for position. Whoever wins the position will be the starter…So that will be a good lesson for all our young players,” Tallon added.
“He really wants to play. He really wants to lead and he really wants to be the starter. He wants to win, and he wants to win now. I was very impressed with him. His attitude is terrific. I liked everything he had to say, and I like his approach. It’s something we try to strive to get better every day.
“A good Tim Thomas will make us a better team.”