ESTERO, Fla. -- On the eve of the Panthers changing ownership in the hope of securing a brighter future, they took a huge step in improving the present by signing two-time Vezina-winning goalie Tim Thomas to a one-year deal.
Thomas, 39, who came into training camp on a professional tryout (PTO) basis after taking last season off to renew his passion for hockey, started Thursday night against the Lightning in Germain Arena, home of the Florida Everblades, about 100 miles west across Alligator Alley from the BB&T Center.
Thomas, who will receive an incentive-laden contract starting at $2.5 million, gave up one power-play goal on 10 shots in 1 1/2 periods of work before being replaced by Jacob Markstrom.
"I love watching him practice every day," Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon said before the game.
"He battles on every shot. It's great for the team, great for him, great for our goalies to watch him how he works and prepares. You could see why he's a champion.
Wearing jersey No. 34, Thomas wasn't the only Panther making a delayed preseason debut. Forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Kris Versteeg shook off more than five months of rust each after recovering from hip and ACL surgery, respectively.
Huberdeau, 20, who scored a goal on his first shot in his first NHL game en route to winning the franchise's only Calder Trophy, scored two power-play goals to stake Florida to a 2-0 lead early in the second.
Defensemen Brian Campbell and Tom Gilbert, who's on a PTO, assisted on both.
The Panthers were last in the NHL last season, and last in goals allowed, so they chose not to re-sign free-agent goalie Jose Theodore. Backup Scott Clemmensen, 36, is in the final year of his contract and is coming off a poor, injury-plagued season. He underwent another knee procedure before training camp began and is expected to start the season on injured reserve.
Markstrom, 23, the longtime projected goalie of the future, may have to wait another year or two before taking over the Panthers' net. Tallon and Thomas have said the longtime Bruin could serve as a mentor to the 6-foot-6 Swede through examples of his ferocious work ethic.
Markstrom, who was 8-14-1 with a 3.12 GAA last season, is on a two-way deal, so the Panthers have the cost-saving option to send him down to the AHL.
"Lessons learned," Tallon said of Markstrom. "He's a good young goalie. We're not giving up on him at all. This is good for everybody involved. ... (Thomas) is a great student of the game and it will rub off on everybody."
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen has high expectations for Huberdeau, who had 31 points in the lockout-shortened season.
"We expect him to start moving into that premier player (category)," Dineen said after morning skate.
"When it comes time to talk about some of the quality forwards in the league we want him to be part of that discussion."
Veteran defenseman Mike Mottau cleared waivers and headed to San Antonio. ...
Former Panthers center John Madden, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, was on hand after being hired to be a pro scout.
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