Tim Thomas feels ‘reborn’ in return to ice with Panthers

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Tim Thomas hit the reset button on his career.

A Conn Smythe and two-time Vezina Trophy winner, Thomas joined the Florida Panthers for practice Tuesday, ending a 15-month absence from the NHL.

“I feel almost reborn in a way,” Thomas said. “After 14 years of pro hockey, I got tired. I needed a break. Now I am energized and looking forward to it. I feel great.”

In looking for a fresh start, Thomas may have found a perfect match in Florida. The Panthers are aiming to rebound from a last-place finish in 2012-13, while the 39-year-old netminder is eager to relive a climb to the top.

During Thomas’ first two seasons with the Boston Bruins, they not only missed the playoffs, but finished last in the division. In 2008-09, the Bruins captured the Northeast Division title. Two years later, the Stanley Cup.

Thomas sees a similar situation emerging in Florida.

“I think this organization is right on the verge of a big turnaround and a big bounceback,” Thomas said. “I was able to see that rise of an organization and a team. I think the Florida Panthers are situated in a similar situation.”

In June 2012, Thomas announced on his Facebook page he would be leaving the game to focus on “family, friends and faith.” He spent the time in Colorado reconnecting with his family, while also getting involved in developing townhouses and other business ventures. Hockey never entered his mind.

Watching the Bruins advance to the Stanley Cup Final last season, though, rekindled Thomas’ interest in the game. After not watching the sport all year, he became engrossed in his former teammates’ efforts.

By July, the veteran found himself on the ice again in Michigan, training with former Panther and Hall of Famer Igor Larionov. Monday, the Panthers and Thomas agreed to a professional tryout.

Florida GM Dale Tallon still needs to ink the goaltender before rosters are finalized. But given the team’s struggles in net last year, the fact top prospect Jacob Markstrom has a total of 31 games of NHL experience and Scott Clemmensen is out for the next couple weeks following knee surgery, Thomas is all but a lock.

“That’s why he’s here,” Tallon said. “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.”

Thomas hasn’t looked so far ahead that he’s ready to stake claim to the starting role, however. He explained his focus has always been on the tandem, not the top of the name on the depth chart.

“I definitely came here to play hockey, no doubt about that, but within a team spectrum, I never competed against the other goalie on my team,” Thomas said. “That’s the way I approached it with Tuukka [Rask] and I think it works really well that way. This way we’re always pulling for each other. We’re only thinking about the best we can be as individuals rather than competing within the team framework. We’re on the same team. We have the same goals.”

It is an approach Markstrom, 23, can appreciate. Aside from learning from the veteran, he’s excited to be going head-to-head against a decorated NHLer.

“It’s the best league in the world. It’s not supposed to be easy,” Markstrom said. “The goal is still the same. I want to play most of the games this year. It doesn’t matter who they bring in. Competition is good. It’s good for me, it’s good for the other goalie.”

Thomas’ presence is also good for the entire Panthers locker room. For a club that could have as many as 11 players under 25 on its roster, the goaltender’s experience is something Tallon is happy to add.

And Thomas recognizes the magnitude of his role.

“I remember being a young guy in the league and people talking about experience and thinking, ‘Oh, experience is overrated,’ ” Thomas said. “Now that I’m on the other end of the spectrum and have been through it, I realize how much experience can be beneficial.”

At the very least, he’ll bring a morale boost to a team often overlooked and underappreciated.

“With the Olympics this year, it’s a big year for him to come back and prove he’s a world-class athlete,” Scottie Upshall said. “We’re happy to have him here. I know it adds some depth to our goaltending and we’re excited to see him in games.

“We’re expecting him to come in and be a big backbone for us.”

You can follow Erin Brown on Twitter @rinkside.