This is only a test. It is a pre-season tryout with no guarantees and many questions. Yet there in camp with the Panthers is Tim Thomas, a goaltender with the potential to lift a franchise. Thomas is three seasons removed from winning his second Vezina Trophy as a member of the Bruins, and is 27 months removed from a Stanley Cup run that included 16 wins, four shutouts, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a .940 save percentage. Now Florida is figuring out if it wants him at all.
To most of the sporting world, Thomas is hockey's mystery man. Surely some GMs around the league are thinking, Hmmm . . . enlist an enigma; win a Cup. Thomas took a year off when his value was sky high and his money was guaranteed. He famously turned down an invitation to the White House. Even among the quirky and often-volatile fraternity of goaltenders, he is unique, a man who doesn't conform to convention either on or off the ice. But put simply, he is worth the gamble.
People close to Thomas say that he is not motivated by money, but rather by challenge and task. The big dollars for hockey players, after all, don't come from the European leagues where he thrived for four seasons -- rather than playing in the minors -- from 1997 to 2002. And Thomas stood to make $5 million for what would have been his final season in Boston in '12-13, but he turned it down for personal reasons. The Panthers or any team would not need to pay through the nose to sign him.
Thomas may be 39, but he has fewer miles on his skate blades than most goalies his age. He has embraced regular yoga therapy to keep himself healthy and injury-free. European Leagues generally have shorter seasons, and Thomas played an average of only 36 games a year during his sojourns in Finland and Sweden -- similar to the workload he had at Vermont from 1993 to '97. And he was one of the best in the NHL while shouldering a hefty workload with the Bruins for seven full seasons. While Thomas has played more than 21,000 minutes of regular-season games, consider that Devils goalie Martin Brodeur has played more than 71,000 in his career.
Tuukka Rask, Thomas's erstwhile back-up and now Boston's No.1 goalie, attributes part of Thomas's success to his ability to balance the intense concentration required in games with the relaxation necessary in post-games. In Thomas' first public comments since arriving in Florida this week, he told reporters, "I almost feel re-born in a way. After 14 years of pro hockey, I got tired. I needed a break. But I'm energized and looking forward to it. I feel great."
Thomas' hockey hero growing up was the Maple Leafs' Johnny Bower, the Hall-of Fame goalie who didn't play in the NHL until he was 29. Bower, who served three years in World War II before being discharged from the Canadian Army because of rheumatoid arthritis, went on to win 250 regular-season games and four Stanley Cups. He retired in 1970 at age 45.
Any GM who might be scared to sign Thomas because of his decision to leave the game for a year should understand that taking time off was just another instance of Thomas being a nonconformist. He came of age at a time when most young goalies were following the example of Patrick Roy, transforming themselves into indistinguishable butterfly goalies. Rather than following the herd, Thomas created his own hybrid style, aggressively challenging shooters and often scrambling to get into position. Whereas many goalies are little more than glorified blockers who simply let pucks hit them, Thomas made proactive saves. It is not a style that most coaches would encourage, but with it he won 225 games, including 29 in the playoffs.
Thomas is chattier before and after games than most of his goaltending brethren. Instead of spitting out canned answers after games, he was one of the most thoughtful interviews in the business (often closing his eyes to work through the full details in his answers).
What do the Panthers have to lose? After winning a Southeast Division title in 2011-12, Florida plummeted during the shortened season last year. The Panthers finished last in the league with 36 points, gave up a league-high 171 goals and allowed an astounding 59 more goals than they scored. Colorado had the league's second-worst ratio at -36. And in goal, Florida doesn't have many good options. Apart from Thomas, they have Jacob Markstrom, a 23-year-old, 6-foot-6 Swede with some decent skills who has spent three years bouncing between the NHL and the minors; Scott Clemmensen, a 36-year old with 67 wins in an 11-year career; and Michael Houser, a 21-year old who has yet to play in the NHL.
Thomas has an additional motivation to play up to his old standards. He wants to play in the Olympics again. As a five-year old, Thomas was inspired watching Jim Craig lead the U.S. to its Miracle on Ice victory over the Soviet Union in 1980. He won a silver medal as Ryan Miller's backup with Team USA during the 2010 Games in Vancouver, but played only part of one period in the semifinal victory over Finland. Miller, who is still with the Sabres, was the best player on the ice in Vancouver, but he has struggled during his last three NHL seasons. For Thomas to earn significant time on the ice in Sochi, or to even get consideration for a roster spot on the U.S. team, he must outplay some excellent domestic contemporaries over the next three months. Including Miller, the other men vying to backstop the U.S. in Sochi are the Kings' Jonathan Quick, the Senators' Craig Anderson, and the Red Wings' Jimmy Howard.
Thomas's comeback may not work, of course. Any player, especially a goalie who has been away from the game for a year, has a lot of rust to get rid of. Thomas may never return to the form that made him the best in the game. But even if he is a few notches below that level this time around, he would be a significant upgrade for a Panthers team in desperate need of a proven goalie. This is only a test, but the upside is huge.