After taking a year off, Tim Thomas is in goal for the Florida Panthers. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

After taking a year off, Tim Thomas is in goal for the Florida Panthers. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

At 39, most men who’ve tried to catch or deflect the world’s most intimidating slap shots are connected to that activity only by nightmares. Not Tim Thomas, who didn’t reach the NHL until he was 32. After taking last season off, he’s back in the net, this time for the Florida Panthers. Previous to his sabbatical, he’d helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup and been named the MVP of the playoffs. Kevin Woodley who writes for NHL.com joined Bill to discuss Thomas’s return to hockey.

BL: Kevin, is it your sense that Thomas’s return to action is all about his desire to play in the Olympics?

KW: I don’t know about all, but in terms of burning desire the Olympics are very high up on that list. He grew up wanting to be an Olympic goal tender, not an NHL goal tender. He talks quite passionately about that. He went to college because back then that’s how you got to the Olympics. It was college players representing the United States at the Olympics, and that was his career goal. When it switched over to the pros, that’s when his focus changed to becoming a pro to get a chance to play in the Olympics.

You know after watching him play this week and watching some of his practices and practice habits, he looks like the old Tim Thomas. The guy who won two Vezina trophies in ’09 and 2011. If he gets that form back — he isn’t far from it now — it’ll be kind of hard to keep him off.

BL: Well tell me a little bit about the competition.

KW: The competition is Tim Thomas against Ryan Miller and Jonathan QuickCraig Anderson is struggling, and Jimmy Howard is better than his numbers indicate right now. But again, this is one thing that I’ve learned about Tim: it’s that you never count him out and you especially don’t count him out when everybody else is. Just watching the way he’s playing and watching what he’s doing for the Panthers in the past couple of weeks both in practice and during the games, that to me would look a lot like the guy we saw here in 2009 to 2011. And again, if he’s playing like that, it’s a much tougher decision to keep him off this team.

BL: I wonder if Thomas fails to get called up for the Olympics whether he might retire. That would put the Florida Panthers in a tough situation mid-season, wouldn’t it?

KW:  I don’t see that happening. If anything Tim Thomas is going to help the Panthers, if not in a playoff position, as a rental. If they’re out of the playoff picture, if he can’t lift them — and let’s face it, they’re an American Hockey League team for the most part, so getting them into the playoffs or into the picture is a tough stretch. If he doesn’t, he could help somebody down the stretch into the playoffs. Again, if he’s playing like the Tim of before, why wouldn’t you want that guy heading into the post season?

BL:  Kevin, we’re about a quarter of the way through the NHL season, but when you spoke with Thomas recently, he said he was still learning where the opposition’s shots would come from based the Panthers’ defense. Whoever the goalies are on the U.S. Olympic team, how much time will they have to learn to work effectively with their teammates? 

KW: The thing with Tim is in the Olympics — he’s been on the big ice before, and not just for a week here and a week there at the World Championships. He’s played over there for years. So that adjustment should be a little simpler for him. In terms of styles and systems, he’s done it in the short tournament before. He was a part of the 2010. I know he didn’t play much. That was partly because of the hip injury he had. I believe he’s got the mind to make those adjustments quickly. Not all goaltenders do. I still think he’d be able to make that adjustment whether it’s in a short tournament for the Olympics or for a new team down the stretch into the playoffs–at the trade deadline. I think it’s an adjustment he can make.