SUNRISE, Fla. – This time, Roberto Luongo got what Tim Thomas wanted.
Luongo was formally welcomed back by the Florida Panthers on Wednesday, the reunion ceremony coming shortly after the team made its second significant swap of goaltenders in as many days by sending Thomas—who grudgingly waived a no-trade clause—to the Dallas Stars.
With that, goalies who squared off when Thomas and Boston beat Luongo and Vancouver in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals were headed different ways.
“This is the beginning of something special for this Florida Panthers organization, having Roberto back in the fold and back here in Florida where he belongs,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. “The franchise is excited about it, we’re going to grow together and win many championships, starting today.”
The Panthers almost certainly won’t be going to the playoffs this season, which made them trade-deadline sellers.
In Luongo’s case, they also saw fit to be buyers.
Luongo has long considered South Florida home, and whenever he retires, he won’t be living anyplace else. But he acknowledged that he had lost hope of ever returning as a player to the Panthers, largely because of what’s left on a $64 million contract that won’t expire until 2022.
“I feel like I’m more popular here now than when I played here, for some reason, which is crazy,” Luongo said. “It’s crazy. But I swear, every time I go out, there’s people recognizing me, which I don’t remember as much when I was younger. Hopefully, good things will happen out of it.”
For Florida, it was a wild 48 hours, starting with a phone call Tallon got from the Canucks on Monday afternoon asking if the Panthers—as they had many times in the past—wanted to take another shot at bringing back Luongo, who they traded away in 2006. That deal got done, and then Thomas was approached Wednesday morning with a plan that would send him to the Stars.
Thomas wanted to stay with Florida, Tallon said.
“We have to win games and we have to build a solid championship team here,” Tallon said. “It was a good conversation. I don’t blame him for being upset … but this is the direction that we’re going in.”
Thomas was 16-20-3 this season for Florida, with a 2.87 goals-against average. Dallas sent goalie Dan Ellis to the Panthers to make that trade happen, and give starter Keri Lehtonen a backup three years removed from winning a Stanley Cup.
Ellis was 5-6-0 with a 3.04 GAA for the Stars this season.
It was a busy two days in advance of the NHL’s trade deadline for the Panthers, who also sent centre Marcel Goc to Pittsburgh on Wednesday for a fifth-round pick in this year’s draft and a third-rounder in the 2015 draft. The Panthers now have 10 picks in the 2015 draft, which will occur with them hosting it in South Florida.
But Luongo hopes players who hit the market this summer see that with his return to Florida, the Panthers—who have been to the playoffs once since 2000—are looking to finally turn their fortunes around.
“I’m hoping that it does show other free agents that it is a serious organization and the ownership is definitely committed to winning,” Luongo said. “When you know that the ownership is committed to winning it really does tend to attract players that want to come play. This is a great place to live.”
Luongo is likely to start Friday when Florida hosts Buffalo. He appeared in 317 games with Florida from 2000 through 2006, with a 2.68 GAA.