By Bill Whitehead
Few teams are able to make a major splash just three weeks before the season begins and send a shock wave throughout the league.
The Florida Panthers managed to do just that.
In need of a backup goaltender after reserve Scott Clemmensen went down due to minor knee surgery, the Panthers extended inquiries to previous goalie Jose Theodore, quirky Ilya Bryzgalov and former Stanley Cup winner Tim Thomas.
Thomas, out of the game all last year after leading Boston to a Stanley Cup title two years ago, accepted the offer of a tryout, joined the club and signed a 1-year contract the day before the Panthers were sold for $250 million to New York financial executive Vincent Viola and Douglas Cifu.
Newcomer Brad Boyes, also brought in on a tryout and who made the final roster, vouched for the work ethic and grit of his former Bruins teammate.
“He never gives up on anything. It’s impressive. He’ll keep going. He’ll get angry (if you score on him in practice)…It shows in the games he plays, the number of highlight saves he’s made. A guy like that, with his resume, on a team like this is going to be positive,” Boyes said.
“He’s a proven winner.”
Thomas played against cross-state rival Tampa Bay in two preseason games for the Panthers, an organization celebrating its 20th anniversary. His performance in the finale – a 5-3 win at BB&T Center – was typical of what most expect from a 4-time All-Star and 2-time Vezina Trophy winner.
“There are some new guys on this team, and we’re looking to become a team and have confidence in each other,” Thomas said. “We need to have confidence we can win a game when we’re up in the third period. I was real happy with what I saw in front of me.”
Said coach Kevin Dineen of Thomas, who will start Opening Night in Dallas: “His intensity and compete level is a great example for our whole team. It’s a good addition.”
Tomas Fleischmann, who has played in every game during his two-year Florida career, said a sense of excitement was created with the news of Thomas joining the team.
“We didn’t have (his kind of experience) last year, and we had injuries in goal. He’s going to help (Jacob Markstrom) get better. Every time I played against him, he worked hard. It’s good for every guy to see in the dressing room. It’s a great thing for us. He works hard and everybody’s going to see it. They’ll try to work harder than him and that’s what’s going to make us better,” Fleischmann said.
Tomas Kopecky scored 15 goals for Florida last year, tying his career high and pacing the Panthers. The winger said he spoke with fellow Slovakian Zdeno Chara, a teammate of the goalie’s in Boston, over the summer to learn more about Thomas.
“He definitely knows how to win. Zdeno said he’s very competitive, even in practice. He’s going to make you better during the practices. He’s a tough goalie when he’s on his game, and his results speak for themselves,” Kopecky said.
Florida continued to make additions last week, inking offensive defenseman Tom Gilbert and skilled but oft-injured blueliner Ryan Whitney to shore up an experienced defense that features Brian Campbell, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov and Mike Weaver.
Forward Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov, the No. 2 overall pick in the June draft, made the roster and is expected to make big contributions. The 18-year-old Finn will likely center the second line featuring top rookie Jonathan Huberdeau and Boyes.
“The kid is awesome. He’s a great center,” said Fleischmann of Barkov. “I’ve been excited to play with him. He’s a great guy and he knows what he’s doing. It took him a couple of periods to get used to (the speed). He’s just going to be an unbelievable player, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Two crucial transactions occurred during free agency that resulted in one win and one loss for the Panthers.
Shawn Matthias, a restricted free agent, was signed by GM Dale Tallon to a two-year, $3.5 million contract. Matthias, 25, made a handful of electrifying plays during a breakout season that saw him record a career-high 14 goals, tied for second with Huberdeau. However, the club did lose unrestricted free agent center Stephen Weiss, who debuted with Florida in 2001 and signed with the Detroit Red Wings.
Only three clubs – Detroit, Ottawa and Philadelphia – lost more man games than Florida, who had 361 in last year’s 48-game season. The return of forwards Sean Bergenheim (groin), Kris Versteeg (knee) and Scottie Upshall (ankle), who played in zero, seven and 27 games, respectively, will be a boost.
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement that saved half of last season resulted in change. Southeast Division champs two years ago, Florida joins the Atlantic Division with Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto. The Cats can expect plenty of Canadian travel in its near future.
35-37-10 (80 points)
Tim Thomas in the crease can flat out steal the Panthers five or six games this season, maybe even a few more if the defense in front of him is improved from a year ago and the offense can fulfill its potential. Florida’s roster is a much better one now that when camp opened, too, and health will be the most important factor. If healthy, Florida can be a fringe playoff team but that’s if everything goes right, and more than likely some woes will develop. Still, the Panthers should finish better than the 16th in the Eastern Conference many pundits predicted and likely in front of Buffalo and Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division.
Note: Be sure to read the links below to the shorter version of my preview of the Florida Panthers and the upcoming season. It appeared in Wednesday’s three Scripps newspapers on the Treasure Coast. Some extra player nuggets, photos.