- Scott Burnside, NHL
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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- It would seem that the skepticism surrounding Jose Theodore's ability to lead the Florida Panthers out of the hockey wilderness is in opposite but equal measure to the confidence the veteran goaltender has that he can get the job done.
From the outside there remains, at best, a wait-and-see attitude with the new-look Panthers. At worst, there is dismissiveness.
One top Canadian columnist referred to the Panthers as the “floor lickers,” a reference to this summer’s spending spree by GM Dale Tallon, which critics said was merely an exercise in meeting the minimum requirements of the salary cap.
But regardless of the position, most will agree that the Panthers’ ability to make a surprise -- some would insist miraculous -- appearance in the playoffs next spring will hinge on whether Theodore has still got it.
Standing next to him in the Panthers’ locker room at their training facility, we get no sense of angst or aggravation at what the outside world may be saying about him.
When you are 35 years old and have won a Hart Trophy and a Vezina Trophy, and have been traded and discarded and, perhaps, more to the point, have endured the tragic loss of a son, you gain perspective.
There is always pressure when you come to a new team, Theodore told ESPN.com. But it’s different than when you’re a young player and you’re trying to establish yourself.
“Now you know what to expect. You’ve proven that you can play and you want to play well,” Theodore said. “I’m not playing to prove anything to anybody but myself and my teammates.”
People can say what they want. They can think what they want. But Theodore isn’t about to engage in any debate one way or another. Neither does he particularly need to use it as motivation.
“I think that brings a negative energy when you start thinking about who you have to please,” he said.
Here is the thing that’s more than a little mystifying:
Theodore went 15-11-3 with a .916 save percentage for a pretty average Minnesota Wild team last season, playing well when starter Nicklas Backstrom was injured. The two previous years, he won 62 games for the Washington Capitals, going 30-7-7 in 2009-10. During his final 24 starts during that season, Theodore did not lose in regulation (he did get pulled in one game and Semyon Varlamov took the loss).
Theodore said he enjoyed his experience in Minnesota and felt it proved he was still capable of stepping into a No. 1 netminder’s role.
Obviously Tallon felt the same way and when it became clear Tomas Vokoun was going to test the free-agent waters on July 1, the Florida GM made a quick call to Theodore’s agents.
“They called right away,” Theodore said.
When the netminder heard Tallon’s plans for this team and saw the mix of youth and skill that was being assembled, Theodore signed a two-year deal worth $3 million total.
“As a player you want to be part of that. I was really excited,” he said.
“With all the new faces we know what it takes.”
Florida goaltending coach Robb Tallas recalls facing Theodore in his first exhibition game when Tallas was in Boston and Theodore was about to become the darling of Montreal with the hometown Habs.
“I know a lot about him,” Tallas said. And after the Panthers signed Theodore, Tallas went back and began going over Theodore’s game tapes.
Tallas agrees that in some way Theodore’s play the past few years has been under the radar. Playing in a wide-open system in Washington, Theodore faced a lot of quality scoring chances and still put up good numbers.
“He’s a guy that wants to win in the third period,” Tallas said.
Whether you’re up a goal or down a goal in the crucial moments, Theodore thrives on those critical situations, he said.
“And that’s not something you really teach,” he said.
Florida winger Matt Bradley played with Theodore in Washington and thinks the veteran netminder is the right guy for this renovated Panthers squad.
“To me, he’s one of the top goalies in the league,” Bradley told ESPN.com. “He doesn’t get rattled by things. I love playing with Jose,” he said.
In the summer of 2009, Theodore lost his infant son, Chace, who was born prematurely in Washington. He returned and found solace at the rink and in the routines of the game.
He remains at peace with his own game and where his career has been -- and where it’s taking him.
What he has gone through “reminds you that the most important thing is to be healthy and to be with the people you love,” he said.
“I was always a guy that stayed positive. But these things make you realize we’re playing a game.”