The Panthers will not only go into their 20th anniversary season with a new owner, but with a new goalie as well.
Stanley Cup champion goaltender Tim Thomas made his Panthers debut on Thursday by starting a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Lightning a few hours after signing a one-year deal with the team.
Thomas, 39, started and played half the game played about a 90-minute drive from the arena he will, for now at least, call home.
The Panthers lost 3-2 in overtime.
“It felt good for being the first time in a game-like atmosphere for 15 months,” said Thomas, who made nine saves and left midway through the second with the Panthers holding a 2-1 lead at Germain Arena.
“I think it was a necessary step for me. I thought it was good not to wait. We’re running out of preseason games. I feel ready now.”
Thomas had been in camp on a professional tryout, although word was he was waiting on the transfer of ownership from Cliff Viner and a large group of investors before signing. General manager Dale Tallon said the two-week window on Thomas’ tryout closed Wednesday as a deal was reached.
The one-year contract — which carries a base salary of $2.5 million but a cap hit closer to $4 million based on incentives — was approved by the NHL a few hours before Thomas took the ice.
“He battles on every shot, every drill,” Tallon said. “This is great for our team, great for him and great for our goalies.”
Thomas comes to the Panthers with plenty of expertise, hardware and some baggage that most of his teammates say they couldn’t care less about.
“I think this is exciting,’’ goalie coach Robb Tallas said. “... He makes big saves at the right time. The players here are excited about that.”
Thomas, who became a free agent in July, reported to Panthers’ training camp on Sept. 16 in good shape and will likely be Florida’s opening night starter in Dallas on Oct.3.
Florida is expected to start the season with Thomas and Jacob Markstrom as its two goalies with Scott Clemmensen going to the minors on a rehab assignment. After that, however, the Panthers have to decided who Florida’s second goalie will be.
Clemmensen will be paid $1.2 million this season whether it’s in Florida or with the Panthers’ AHL affiliate in San Antonio. Markstrom, 23, has spent parts of the past three seasons in San Antonio but took over the starting duties in Florida when Jose Theodore was injured last March.
“We want the best goalies,” Tallon said. “Inner-competition is great for the success of a team. Let them battle it out.”
Thomas and the rest of his new teammates will be back at the BB&T Center in Sunrise for practice Friday morning. That workout will follow the introductory news conference of new owner Vinnie Viola.
Viola is spending at least $230 million for the franchise and the operating rights to the Broward County-owned BB&T Center in Sunrise. The Panthers have a lease with the county to occupy the arena until 2028.
According to sources close to the deal, Viner — who had been the Panthers’ sole general partner since 2010 — will not continue to own a piece of the team but will remain involved with the Panthers’ charitable organization.
Florida’s multitude of local investors — which include the likes of H. Wayne Huizenga, Alan Cohen, Bernie Kosar, Mike Maroone and Jordan Zimmerman — are also said to have been bought out.
Viner, who declined comment via e-mail until the sale is complete, isn’t expected to attend Friday’s news conference.
“Cliff leaves the franchise much better than how he found it,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “He leaves us on solid ground and heading in the right direction.’’• Jonathan Huberdeau’s two goals Thursday night weren’t enough as Tampa Bay got one from Nikita Kucherov with 55 seconds left in overtime to send the Panthers (2-1-3) to their fourth consecutive exhibition loss.