New Cat Shawn Thornton Knows Role, Excited to be with Florida

By Bill Whitehead

New Florida fourth-liner Shawn Thornton is well aware of his role on his new team. It’s a position he’s been locking down since his days in the Ontario Hockey League.

“I’m not really good at a lot of things, to be completely honest. I probably strive to be a little better than average at most things. But taking care of myself…I’ve had a fairly tough upbringing. I’ve always been able to take care of myself,” said Thornton, 37, on Thursday.

“The fighting role started when the Peterborough Petes drafted me. They basically said, ‘If you’re going to play here, you’re not going to be a defenseman any more. You’re going to play forward on the fourth line, and if you’re playing on the fourth line, you’re going to have to stick up for everybody.’”

Two decades later full of seasons that usually had triple-digit PIMs, Thornton has taken his talents to the Panthers, where he will be arm’s length or closer and in a bellicose state from opposing tough guys who dare to take a run at the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad or any other player wearing Panthers red.

Thornton started boxing at 16 in his hometown of Oshawa, and he continued to do so in the early 2000s when he developed a shoulder problem while playing for the Norfolk Admirals. He still boxes and will be in California next week working on his skills in the ring.

However, the immediate impact of boxing – the literal impact of smashing one’s fist into a fellow pugilist’s face – isn’t the allure of the sport.

“I never had any amateur fights. I never really did it to help me in hockey fights. It doesn’t translate. But the conditioning aspect of it is superb and that’s why I do it. I’ve always taken pride in my conditioning my whole life. And being able to contribute in more ways than just my fists,” Thornton said.

“I’ve worked very hard over the last 16 yrs to become more than a one-dimensional hockey player. I bring other things to the table. I’m fairly smart defensively, pretty good positionally. Winning a couple of Cups helps.

“Being an enforcer and an agitator are too different things. Usually I have to clean up the mess of the agitators.”

Thornton has a strong friendship with Krys Barch, the player he’s essentially replacing on the fourth line, though he added that Barch is a better hockey player than fans give him credit for. Thornton actually helped Barch learn to fight in the minors and estimates they’ve tangled 10 times. Thornton also is close to Travis Moen: The pair roomed together for five years and were invited to each’s wedding.

“That’s part of the job,” Thornton said of fighting with friends. “We’re not the WWE where we’re pulling punches. It’s either me or him (out there). It’s understood and part of the job.”

The genuine nature of Thornton was evident when he discussed his regret on the hit on Brooks Orpik last Dec. 7 in Boston. After Orpik kneed Loui Eriksson, Thornton tried to fight the former Penguin defenseman. When he refused, Thornton used a sneak attack similar to another on Dec. 7, Pearl Harboring Orpik with a slew foot and hitting him twice in the head, which resulted in a concussion and the current Washington Capital being taken off the ice on a stretcher.

“It was unfortunate. I’m friends with Brooksy. My intention was never to knock him out or hurt him. If I were going to take a (15-game suspension), it wouldn’t have been on him, believe me. I still don’t like it. I did my 6 weeks. I lost a good amount of change,” said Thornton, who lost over $84,000 in salary.

“It probably took a few weeks after that to get back into it and start playing the same way. It was unfortunate and I shouldn’t have done it.”

Of the Panthers, Thornton pointed to the obvious talent and youth.

“The skill level is obviously second to none. I was asking Tuukka about Barkov last year because I didn’t know much about him. But playing against him, you definitely notice him. Playing again (Erik Gudbranson) the last couple of years, he was extremely hard to play against. Every time I dug into a corner, I knew it was going to be a rough one coming out. These guys are starting to come into their own…and play the game the right way. Hopefully the guys Dale has brought in for leadership will help out along the way,” he said.

“Willie Mitchell and David Bolland have both won (the Stanley Cup) twice, so I guess I won’t come in to the locker room and say, ‘This is how I did it, this is how I did it.’”

When late June rolled around and the free agent period was looming, I made a short list of UFAs I felt the Panthers should pursue. Making the top five was Thornton – a leader, a winner, an enforcer and veteran who will show these young Cats how the game is supposed to be played for the most part, minus any water squirting, of course.

“I was talking to (Florida GM) Dale (Tallon) a few days before, and Florida was my first choice. I like where the team’s going. I like the moves they’ve made in the offseason. I’ve been down there with the wife. We’re really excited to be a part of it,” Thornton admitted.

“At this point, I know my role and my job fairly well and he didn’t need to stress too much to me. We’ve known each other a long time and he knows how self-aware I am. There wasn’t too much to be said other than he was excited that I was excited to come there. I was very pleased that they were as interested.

“I’m excited for the next chapter.”

Florida fans should be equally excited, too, because no opponent will run any Panther with impunity like Rick Nash did to Tomas Kopecky and Mike Richards did to David Booth.

Shawn Thornton won’t stand by idly and simply watch that take place.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com

Grimaldi, Trocheck Continue Their Journey Together

By Bill Whitehead

Sometimes players are just naturally connected to other players throughout their playing careers. MJ-Scottie, Sid-Geno, Stockton-Malone and LeBron-Dwyane. Okay, that last one stings a bit, but maybe there’s another duo you can add to take the place of the former Miami Heat dynamic tandem among South Florida teammates.

Vinny-Rocco.

Has a great ring to it, right?

Vincent Trocheck and Rocco Grimaldi, two of the Florida Panthers’ most prized prospects, have been conjoined over the last decade, developing their skills together in youth hockey, being selected by the Panthers at the same draft and enjoying incredible success at the 2013 World Junior Championship in Russia while playing on the same line.

The only difference is the paths they took in navigating their way to play for the big club.

Trocheck had a breakout season in 2012-13 playing for Saginaw and Plymouth, winning the OHL’s scoring title with 109 points. Grimaldi opted for the University of North Dakota and the lure of beautiful Ralph Engelstad Arena, where he played before some of the best fans in college hockey. Together, they found time in that span to help the US team win gold at the WJC, with Grimaldi scoring two goals and Trocheck clinching the top spot for the Americans with an empty-net marker in the closing seconds of a 3-1 win over Sweden in the final game.

Now it’s time to have that success with the Panthers.

Trocheck, who just completed his fourth development camp, has tasted NHL success. He scored five goals and had three assists in 20 games for the Cats last year, and most importantly, he looked like he belongs in the NHL and has a great track history of winning and producing as a center.

The present pressure is placed on Grimaldi, a 5-foot-6 skilled forward who lacks size but makes up for it with pure talent and determination that, well, comes with battling doubts about his stature his whole career. He turned pro in May after three seasons at UND and is now on another part of his journey — making it to the NHL.

Florida director of player development Brian Skrudland takes pride in players like Grimaldi and Trocheck, and he doesn’t doubt the former’s character and persistence.

“(Rocco’s) such a dynamic player,” Skrudland said during development camp. “When I went to the University of North Dakota and sat in the crowd, I felt so proud that Rocco Grimaldi was a Panther. Everyone in the stands was saying, ‘Watch this little guy, he’s going to light it up.’

“He might just be that guy who says, ‘You know what, (5-9) Brendan Gallagher did it with Montreal. I’m coming in here and not going to San Antonio.’ It’s up to him to make the coach’s decision a hard one.”

With centers being the center of attention for the Panthers, Grimaldi finds himself in a good situation.

“Last year I played winger up until December then I played center the rest of the way. I’ve played center my entire life until I got to college. That was the only time I’ve ever played wing. For this, it doesn’t matter if I’m playing wing, center, defense, goalie – I want to make the team so whatever they want me to do, I’ll do,” he said.

A right-handed shot, the southern California native said moving from center to wing is just a matter of prioritizing.

“It just all goes back to details when you’re doing drills and stuff. You’ve got to pay attention to not only your role as a centerman but what the wing’s role is. You have to be aware of that. I’ve seen forwards go back to defense and defense go up to forward. That’s a harder adjustment than anything else. You just have to pay attention to everything they’re asking you to do, regardless if it’s your position or not. You never know, one day it could be you,” Grimaldi said.

He said he was happy to see Trocheck have success last year – “It’s really encouraging for me to see him do that” – and feels he can rely on the Pittsburgh native in tough times.

“I played Little Caesar’s (Hockey Club) with him when were 16 and I’ve known him a long time. It’s great to see that he’s doing well. It’s crazy that we’re still on this journey together. He’s a good guy who works hard and that’s something I like to do, too. He’s someone I can push and he can push me. It’s a good relationship to have,” said Grimaldi.

Added Trocheck: “I’ve grown up with Rocco from a pretty young age. He’s definitely exciting to watch. It’s tough for me to see a difference (in his game) because I’ve seen him consistently my whole life.”

The diminutive Grimaldi might bring a pint-sized body to the rink, but his character, skill and grit more than stand tall out there on the ice. It’s something Trocheck has watched for a long time.

Loaded with character and the epitome of winners who do all the little things well, Grimaldi and Trocheck are key pieces of the organization. GM Dale Tallon has preached character during his tenure with the Panthers, and both are high-character young men who have a track record of winning, so expect them to stick around. Grimaldi and Trocheck likely will have to be patient this season — for a while, at least — with the way the Florida roster looks, but at 21, they both have plenty of time to develop.

They’ll likely be honing their talents and winning games like they always have.

Together.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com

 

 

 

Aaron Ekblad a Can’t-Miss? Some Think So

By Bill Whitehead

After finally making it home from Philadelphia and slogging through a wet NASCAR weekend working at Daytona, I offer up these little leftovers from the City of Brotherly Love. Hopefully, this will get you in the right mood for Florida’s development camp that opens today.

You’re going to love Aaron Ekblad, Florida’s top pick. And I mean absolutely love. It’s that simple really. I’ve had the chance to talk to him a few times and watch how interacts with the media and fans, and the kid’s a natural. Smooth and articulate, Ekblad’s exactly what this franchise needs: A new face that it can build around, a poster boy for the organization. I chatted with him at Citizens Bank Park, the prospects interview and the draft, and the 18-year-old is extremely likable and will quickly be a media and fan favorite.

But forget about my encounters with him. Everyone I spoke with just swooned over the kid and said the choice at No. 1 by Florida GM Dale Tallon was an easy one. At the ballpark before batting practice while waiting for credentials, one hockey radio host told me Ekblad would be a great player for Florida for 15 years and had no flaws – solid on both ends of the rink and dependable. Don’t even think about trading the pick, he stated. The dropoff from Ekblad to everyone else was too steep.

At the draft I sat beside someone who worked with a junior team that was an Ontario Hockey League rival to Ekblad’s Barrie Colts and had watched him play “a hundred times.” He had nothing but positives to say about Ekblad, particularly when it came to his strong character and physical nature. He added that Ekblad (@EK5Colts) has no cockiness or ego about him, just goes about his business. The same OHL source didn’t have such adoration for Brendan Lemieux, Ekblad’s teammate who was selected No. 31 overall by Buffalo, but that’s for the Sabres to deal with.

I guess the most gloating or ego Ekblad showed at the draft was saying he expected to make the team out of camp and contribute right away, but that’s neither gloating nor ego; it’s confidence that comes with being a premier athlete. And you have to expect that self-assuredness by a No. 1 overall pick.

Just a hunch, but I feel that a year from now Florida fans will all be saying, “Hey, remember when we wanted to trade away No. 1 for a package with Edmonton or Vancouver? Man, glad Dale didn’t do that.”

It was a strong, sure move by the Panthers in choosing what amounted to be the consensus best player in the draft.

 

Ekblad2

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Two teams who did really well at the draft — Edmonton and Winnipeg. Skating may be a slight issue with Oilers’ No. 3 pick Leon Draisaitl, but he rates high up there on the maturity and skill level. I spent time with him at the ballpark and prospects interviews, and he couldn’t have been a more pleasant person, taking the moment in stride and speaking with me like he was a close friend. He was an immediate favorite of everyone. Jets’ top pick Nikolaj Ehlers, meanwhile, was a mock draft favorite among message board types. Many fans played the role of Tallon and tried to work a deal that would bring the Panthers the electrifying Ehlers, a roster player or two, and a prospect. It didn’t work out for Florida on either of these kids, but I’ll be watching their development closely and hoping they do well because you can’t help but like them.

Here are a couple of shots I took of Draisaitl (left) and Ehlers (right):

 

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PHInally, Philadelphia fans. What else can you say other than that they never fail to deliver when it comes to derisive behavior? They booed everything from start to finish, regardless of conference affiliation or geographical proximity. The only team that escaped unscathed on Friday was San Jose, but that was because the NHL neglected to acknowledge them during the roll call.

The last chorus of jeers from the night came when a league official shut down the festivities by proclaiming that the first round had ended. The boos rang out loudly at the announcement, which had the feel of “Hey, folks, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” That’s from The Blues Brothers, and blue, especially that of the New York Rangers, doesn’t play well in Philly.

 

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Final point: If you ever get the chance to go to the NHL Draft, you definitely should. It’s a fantastic event and you never know who you’ll run into. The non-Panther highlights were Mike Babcock taking selfies and Joel Quenneville poking in to the Florida media scrum by mistake.

And hey, the Panthers are hosting next year, so you have no reason not to go.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com