By Allan Muir
Tim Thomas finally did the math.
With training camps open, spending around the league pushing up against the ceiling and no teams in desperate need of his services, the veteran netminder finally decided to walk down the one path that was open to him. Thomas has agreed to join the Florida Panthers on a professional tryout basis.
Panthers GM Dale Tallon says Thomas will practice with the team on Tuesday with an eye on grabbing the starting job.
"We need somebody to help us get to where we need to go," Tallon told AP. "Right now, it's Tim Thomas. ... The more competition you have for spots internally, the better off your team will be. It's a wide-open competition. Let the best man win."
It's an interesting development for the career of the 39-year-old netminder with two Vezina trophies, a Conn Smythe and a unique ability for creating controversy that he developed late in life.
If Thomas expected to pick from a roomful of suitors when he announced his intention to return to hockey from his self-imposed exile, he had to be stunned by the silence. Though plenty of teams could use a keeper with his resume, Thomas was regarded as too much of a wild card after the way things ended with the Boston Bruins.
That his only option would be a tryout offer from a team destined for the depths of the Eastern Conference has to be a humbling experience for the intensely proud Thomas, who also failed to earn an invite to Team USA's Olympic orientation camp last month. And with so much to prove, it's hard to imagine that he won't stick with the Panthers. Unless he developed an allergy to rubber during his year in the wilderness, he's a clear upgrade over the two netminders who expected to spend the season with Florida.
Scott Clemmensen, the veteran, could be dealt (unlikely) or have his salary buried in the minors (unlikelier), but it makes sense that he'd be retained to serve as the backup. Jacob Markstrom, meanwhile, is on a two-way deal and can be sent back to San Antonio of the AHL without having to clear waivers. That would be a tough break for the team's goalie of the future, but it's a demotion of his own making. Showing promise and being someone to be counted on every day are two very different stages of development, and Markstrom hasn't found the consistency to reach that second marker just yet.
And that's ultimately what makes this tryout a no-brainer for the Panthers. Neither Clemmensen nor Markstrom was ideally suited to carry the mail for a rebuilding team that's going to rely heavily on a core of young, inexperienced players. Thomas, on the other hand, is someone who can give a young squad the kind of confidence that comes from knowing that not every mistake will end up in the back of the net.
Of course, that's assuming Thomas hasn't completely lost his considerable gifts during his hiatus from hockey. And wouldn't it be something if he has?
"He's in good shape and he's eager to go," Tallon said. "He worked extremely hard all year. Mentally and physically, he's very strong and he's ready to compete for a starting position here."