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Shawn Thornton ready to call it a career

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) For Shawn Thornton, getting to the NHL was not easy.

Same goes for leaving.

The last game of Thornton’s 20-year pro career – the first half spent grinding in the minors before he got to the NHL for good – comes Saturday night, when he and the Florida Panthers play host to the Buffalo Sabres. The Panthers play their season finale Sunday in Washington, and Thornton isn’t making the trip.

He’s going out on his terms, on home ice, with a tall glass of celebratory scotch in his postgame plans.

“A lot of years, a lot of punches in the face, a lot of miles on the bus,” Thornton said. “But then a lot of charter flights, a lot of filets on those charter flights. It’s the best job in the world.”

And now it’s ending.

He is one of two players to play more than 600 games in the American Hockey League and at least 700 games in the National Hockey League. The first was Jim Morrison, who logged 704 NHL games in a career that ended in the early 1970s.

Thornton’s last game will be his 705th.

“It’s been a good run,” Thornton said.

He’ll get a bit of a break after the season but he’s staying with the Panthers, in a somewhat still-to-be-determined capacity on the business side of the operation working with team president Matthew Caldwell. Thornton considered trading his skates for suits last year when he was weighing an offer to return to Boston – where he won one of his two Stanley Cups – and work in television and community relations.

Florida interim coach Tom Rowe raves about Thornton and knows the end of his playing days is an emotional time. Rowe paid tribute last week when he sent Thornton out for the opening shift in Boston so he could hear an ovation from Bruins’ fans one final time.

“I think he’ll be great,” Rowe said when asked about Thornton’s looming transition to front-office life. “The thing that’s impressed me the most about him is how intelligent he is. He’s a very, very smart guy and he’s got a real passion for business and I think he’s going to pick it up quickly.”

Thornton’s career was not a glamorous one, with far more fights than goals. Drafted 190th overall in 1997, he was a fourth-line guy, an enforcer, someone whose job it was to protect his teammates by any means necessary.

He never scored more than two goals in a game, never even had more than two points in a game. Thornton’s first fight came in his second NHL contest, and he once told an opponent – while trying to bait him into a fight – that he could pick which hand to punch with.

“He’s the epitome of a hockey player,” Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck said.

But off the ice, Thornton is a mild-mannered sort. He started a foundation that works with people affected by cancer and Parkinson’s disease, and is someone who was humbled by being nominated again this year for the Masterson Award that honors the player who best combines perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

“Definitely no complaints,” Thornton said. “I tried to give back when I could. Hopefully when it’s all said and done I’m remembered more for than the antics on the ice, because that was just a job.”

His next job awaits.

His parents and some close friends are coming in for Saturday night’s finale, and that glass of scotch – a bottle he’s been saving for a couple years – awaits afterward.

It’ll be a toast to a career well done.

“Saying he’s been a heart and soul guy, even that does him an injustice,” Panthers goaltender James Reimer said. “He’s beyond that. His whole career, he’s played the game the right way. He’s battled hard, he’s fought hard, he’s stuck up for his teammates. He’s just been the ultimate pro, the ultimate teammate.”

Canadiens’ Drouin ‘day-to-day’ with upper body injury

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Some mildly concerning news for the Montreal Canadiens on Monday as the team announced Jonathan Drouin will not play in their preseason game tonight due to an upper body injury.

He is currently listed as being day-to-day. He will be replaced in the lineup tonight by veteran forward Torrey Mitchell.

At this point it is just something that is keeping him out of a preseason game, so it’s not really a huge deal at this point. Seeing as how the game doesn’t count there is no sense in risking further injury for a player that is going to be a key piece of this year’s roster. But the fact he still has something that is bothering him enough to keep him out of a game has to be at least a little bit of a concern for Canadiens fans.

The Canadiens acquired Drouin this summer for top defense prospect Mikhail Sergachev and are counting on him to be an impact player. They also immediately signed him to a six-year, $33 million contract extension.

The plan right now seems to be to try him out at center to help fill what might be the Canadiens’ biggest organizational need — a top-line, No. 1 center.

Drouin is an exceptional talent and still has superstar potential and is coming off of a season that saw him take a huge step forward. In 73 games with the Lightning he scored 21 goals and added 32 assists. His 53 total points would have made him the third-leading scorer on the Canadiens. If he takes another leap in his development and solidifies that No. 1 center spot his addition could be a total game-changer for the Canadiens’ roster.

The Rangers are keeping J.T. Miller at wing

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When the New York Rangers traded center Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes this offseason it created an opening at a pretty important spot in their lineup. With that new vacancy at center it seemed reasonable to conclude that J.T. Miller, coming off of a career year that saw him score 22 goals and record 56 points, would move back to his natural position on a more permanent basis.

According to Rangers coach Alain Vigneault on Monday, that will not be the case to start the season.

Vigneault announced on Monday that Miller is going to open the season playing on the wing, not necessarily because of anything he has or has not done, but because of the play of the other centers in Rangers camp.

This would seem to be good news for 2017 first-round picks Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson. Both have not only been impressing the team at camp, but still remain in the running for a roster spot. With Jesper Fast currently sidelined due to an injury, Vigneault said it is possible both of the Rangers’ first-round picks could start the season on opening night roster.

Along with the two draft picks, the only other move the Rangers made this offseason to address the center position was to bring in veteran David Desharnais.

Mika Zibanejad, who was limited to just 56 games a year ago due to injury, will also be expected to take on a bigger role in what will be his second year with the team.

The Rangers traded Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes over the summer in a deal that brought them back the No. 7 overall pick (used to select Andersson) and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo in an effort to create some cap space and help rebuild their defense.

Jets’ Wheeler: ‘It just felt right to take a stance’

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Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler was one of the few NHL players to make some sort of an unprompted statement in response to President Donald Trump’s weekend comments regarding NFL players and their protests during the National Anthem.

During a speech in Alabama on Friday the President urged NFL owners to fire players that “disrespect” the flag by taking a knee during the National Anthem.

On Saturday, Wheeler was critical of the President’s comments in a series of Tweets.

On Monday, Wheeler was asked about why he spoke out and ended up talking for several minutes on the subject.

“I think crossing over into the sports world it hits home a little more,” said Wheeler, via the Jets’ website. “I think a lot of people, similar to my wife and I, it has been kind of a slow boil. The rhetoric over and over, he has just kind of gone a little too far too many times. It just felt right to kind of take a stance.

“There have been a lot of players who have felt a certain way, one way or the other, when you start coming into their territory a little bit. Some of the language that he used referencing NFL players, I think that was kind of the last straw for a lot of guys, whichever way they feel about it to voice their opinion.”

Wheeler was later asked if he would support a teammate if they decided to take a knee during the National Anthem.

“I’m absolutely for the first amendment,” said Wheeler. “I’m a big believer that what makes America a special place is you’re allowed to stand up for what you believe in. With just cause, if someone were electing to do that they would 100 percent have my support. Even if I don’t necessarily agree with why they do it it is their right to feel that way, it is their right to behave that way. If I didn’t agree with it, I would absolutely sit down, have a coffee, talk about it, try to understand why they feel that way and maybe you become a little more sympathetic.”

His entire media session is available via the Jets.

Jets coach Paul Maurice said he supported Wheeler’s Tweets while adding that Wheeler is “one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met.”

During NFL games on Sunday pretty much every team took part in some sort of a protest during the National Anthem, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans who remained in the locker room prior to their games.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, announced that they will be accepting their invitation to visit the White House just one day after the NBA’s Golden State Warriors announced they would not be attending.

Lightning will retire Vincent Lecavalier’s number on February 10

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The Tampa Bay Lightning announced on Monday morning that they will be retiring Vincent Lecavalier’s No. 4 this season, making sure that no other player will ever wear it for the franchise.

His jersey will be lifted to the rafters on Feb. 10 when the Lightning host the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings were one of three teams Lecavalier played for in his career, along with the Philadelphia Flyers.

“It is a great honor to have my number retired and I’d like to thank the Lightning organization and Jeff Vinik for recognizing me with this achievement,” Lecavalier said in a team statement. “The Tampa Bay community and our fans have treated me and my family so amazingly that this honor is extra special to share it with everyone. My family and I are very excited for February 10 when we can share so many memories.”

Lecavalier was the No. 1 overall pick by the Lightning in 1998 and spent 14 of his 17 seasons in the NHL with the team.

He is currently the franchise’s all-time leader in games played and goals and the second-leading point producer. He will be the second player to have his number retired by the team, joining Martin St. Louis.

Lecavalier and St. Louis helped lead the Lightning to a Stanley Cup during the 2003-04 season. His best individual season was probably the 2006-07 season when he finished with a league-leading 52 goals.