Thornton eager to bring his experience to Panthers

Thursday, 07.31.2014 / 6:25 PM
Alain Poupart  - Correspondent

Shawn Thornton first got to know Dale Tallon more than a decade ago. Now that the two have been reunited with the Florida Panthers, the veteran forward knows exactly what his new general manager expects from him.

"At this point, I know my role and the job fairly well," Thornton told South Florida media members Thursday. "Dale didn't need to stress it too much to me. We've known each other for a long time and I think he knows how self-aware I am, if I'm self-aware at all, and what he needs to tell me. So there wasn't too much being said, except that he was excited that I was excited to come there. I was very pleased that they were as interested."

Thornton, who turned 37 on July 23, joined the Panthers as an unrestricted free agent on July 1 after the Boston Bruins decided against bringing him back for an eighth season. He was a popular player in Boston, in part because of his outgoing personality and also because of his role as the Bruins' enforcer.

"It's no different than anything in life," Thornton said. "You spend seven and a half years somewhere, you're going to have a lot of ties, you're going to have a lot of memories. I was fortunate to be on a pretty good team the last five years that I was here, so it was a lot of fond memories. But I'm excited for the next chapter.

"Florida was my first choice. I like where the team is going. I obviously know Dale from Chicago. I love the area. I've already been down a couple of times checking it out with the wife. We're really, really excited to be a part of it."

Thornton began his NHL career with the Blackhawks after he was acquired as a prospect in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs in September 2001. Tallon was Chicago's director of player personnel at the time.

When Tallon signed Thornton on July 1, he revealed he was bringing the veteran forward to Florida to play on the fourth line alongside fellow free-agent acquisition Derek MacKenzie and also to bring intangibles and veteran leadership to a Panthers team loaded with talented young players.

"A long time ago we started off together," Tallon said. "I signed him to his first contract. He can play it any way you want. He'll surprise you with his skills and he'll score some highlight-film goals, but he knows his role. His fitness level is incredible, his nutrition. He'll really be a great leader in our locker room for our young guys. He'll show them the way. He and Derek will really make a good tandem. It'll be hard to play against. It's a fourth line that will play with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and toughness."

Thornton will replace Krys Barch, who he calls a good friend, as the Panthers' enforcer.

He had five goals and three assists in 64 games last season, including a beautiful backhand goal against Florida at TD Garden on Jan. 28.

Thornton hasn't stuck around in the NHL for 11 seasons — three with Chicago, one with the Anaheim Ducks and seven with Boston — because of his offensive skills. Still, he's been able to continue his NHL career despite the decreasing influence of enforcers because he's more than just a fighter.

"I think the big key for me is conditioning," Thornton said. "I've always taken pride in being on top of my conditioning my whole life, being able to contribute in more ways than just my fists. I've worked very hard over the last 16 years to become more than a one-dimensional hockey player and I think I bring other things to the table. I'm fairly smart defensively, pretty good positionally and every once in a while I can surprise people with some skill. I think that's helped. I think obviously winning a couple of Stanley Cups didn't hurt, either. All these things combined, as well as some other intangibles, have helped me stay around a little longer than others."

Thornton was one of six free-agent acquisitions made by the Panthers on July 1, and one of three to have been a member of two Stanley Cup-winning teams. Defenseman Willie Mitchell played with the Los Angeles Kings' championship teams in 2012 and 2014 and center Dave Bolland was part of Chicago's Cup-winning teams in 2010 and 2013.

Thornton was part of Anaheim's championship team in 2007 and was a member of the Bruins when they won it all in 2011.

The Panthers hope those three can help show their talented young players how to win. Thornton, for one, is excited about the idea of playing alongside gifted youngsters such as Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Erik Gudbranson.

"The skill level is obviously second to none," Thornton. "I was asking [Boston goaltender] Tuukka [Rask] about Barkov last year because I didn't know much about him. But playing against him, you definitely notice him. Playing against [Gudbranson] the last couple of years, he's 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. They're young kids that are starting to play the game the right way. Hopefully the guys Dale has brought in for leadership and everything else along the way will help out.

"I'm definitely not going to come into the locker room [going], 'This is how I did it, this is how I did it, this is how I did it.' If kids ask questions and they'd like to know what it's about and some things that I maybe picked up along the way, any type of advice from experience, I'd be more than happy to share. But I need to come in and try to fit in first and get a feel. Obviously I've been doing this for a long time, but so have other guys. I'm excited for a good year all around."

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