Florida Panthers

After spending first part of season on the bench, Shawn Thornton is making his mark

Florida’s Shawn Thornton battles it out with Buffalo’s Marcus Foligno during a game at BB&T Center on Dec. 20.
Florida’s Shawn Thornton battles it out with Buffalo’s Marcus Foligno during a game at BB&T Center on Dec. 20. AP

Shawn Thornton only played in one of the first 17 games of the season but never seemed to get upset with his lot on the Florida Panthers as he continued coming in every day ready to put his work in.

Florida’s younger players definitely took notice of Thornton’s work ethic as did the team’s coaching staff.

While it was no surprise Thornton wasn’t moping around because he wasn’t playing, it’s no shock that he isn’t gloating now that he is.

Thornton, 39, has been around the game a long time. When he wasn’t playing all that much, he knew that could change at anytime.

Now, it seems, is what he was looking forward to.

“I’m happy with my role, whatever they deem it to be,” said Thornton, who has played on Florida’s fourth line in nine of the past 11 games counting Wednesday’s game against the visiting Winnipeg Jets.

“That being said, I didn’t sit on the couch all summer figuring I would only play 10 games this season. I worked my [behind] off to get in as good as shape as possible, make sure I wasn’t wasting ownership’s money by mailing it in.

“I’ve been doing this a long time; I’m aware of my role and I’m comfortable with it.”

When the season started, Florida stuck with a fourth line of Derek MacKenzie with Shane Harper and Greg McKegg for the first few weeks. When Harper’s game began to slip, he was sent to the minors. McKegg, eventually, was as well.

Now McKegg is back and playing on the fourth line with Thornton.

“He makes you feel comfortable right away,” McKegg said Tuesday after being recalled from the minors before the Dallas game. “He’s a great guy to have in the room during games, on the ice and on the bench. He helps make a team feel confident.

“What a great guy to have around and he can play the game. He works the defense and keeps people honest. There seems to be a calmness to everything when he’s around.”

On Nov. 19 at Ottawa, then-coach Gerard Gallant put Thornton in the lineup for just the second time this season and Thornton played a strong game leading Gallant to put him back in for a rare appearance on a back-to-back set the following night in New York.

Florida beat the Rangers that evening at Madison Square Garden, one of seven victories the Panthers have with Thornton (7-3-4) in the lineup.

Tom Rowe, Florida’s general manager and interim coach, said Florida’s success with Thornton in the lineup is helping him stay in the lineup.

“A lot of people didn't think Thornton was going to play that much,” Rowe said, Monday, “and neither did I. Now, I'm not going to say he's going to play every game, but the way he’s been playing, he’s going to stay in there.”

Many assume Thornton is in the final year of what is now a 14-year NHL career, although that was the case last year as Thornton had hinted.

Only co-owner Doug Cifu and Thornton came to an agreement during a team outing that the veteran forward with a pair of Stanley Cup championships on his resume would come back for at least one more season.

“It’s tough to be competing at your highest level when you get in one game out of 20,” Thornton said. “But, I knew that could be my role and I was comfortable with it. Of course, I’m a competitive guy and there’s a reason I have played 20 years and been on some teams which have had some success.

“Do you just come in the morning and say ‘eh, I’m not playing?’ No, you work your [behind] off and practices become your games and you everything you can to stay ready and show you want to play.”

Wednesday: Jets at Panthers

When/where: 7 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.

TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMYM 990.

Series: Winnipeg/Atlanta leads 46-35-5.

Scouting report: The host Jets snapped a four-game slide by beating the Panthers 4-3 in a shootout on Dec. 15. Winnipeg went into Tuesday’s game at Tampa Bay having lost two consecutive games. Florida, which plays its next three at home, will start Roberto Luongo in goal.