It feels like it’s been forever since the Florida Panthers signed former Columbus Blue Jackets Vezina-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to a 7-year deal averaging $10 million per season. At the time, fans rejoiced and asserted that Dale Tallon had finally addressed a nagging issue for the team. Between oft-injured Roberto Luongo in his twilight years and oft-inconsistent James Reimer in his career in general, the crease in South Florida appeared to be ripe for the taking. Unfortunately, rather than singing his praises after his first season with the Panthers, the team is desperate for a Sergei Bobrovsky bounce-back season.
Fortunately for the Panthers, the 2019-20 season stands as a statistical outlier for the netminder. Bobrovsky’s .900 save percentage and 3.23 GAA last year rank dead last when stack-ranking those categories across his career (and used a minimum of 30 games played). Furthermore, his quality start percentage of .417 sits last as well, and far below his career average of .567.
Florida Panthers Desperate for a Sergei Bobrovsky Bounce-Back Season
Likelihood of a Sergei Bobrovsky Bounce-Back?
If you look only at Bobrovsky, and nothing else, you’d think 2019-20 was nothing more than a blip on an otherwise squeaky-clean resume. After all, he won two Vezinas. And he already finished top-15 in Hart voting on three separate occasions. Bob attended two All-Star Games too. He also carries more than respectable career numbers. Now through 10 years, Bobrovsky established a .917 save percentage, 2.54 GAA, and a record of 278-172-43.
There is one little caveat, though. That 2019-20 season Bobrovsky produced came behind the Florida Panthers; all the good numbers came while he played for the Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets.
So, how much of the team’s failures fall at Bob’s feet? How much responsibility should be placed on the team in front of him? Ultimately, this is one of the only NHL goalies that people look at as a “great eraser”. In other words, he’s supposed to be able to make up for defensive lapses and make saves that most other goalies wouldn’t be able to make. While he showed flashes of brilliance, the consistency never amounted to enough to push the team over the top.
Florida Panthers – Run-and-Gun Risk
Compared to the rest of the league, the Panthers ranked seventh in goals-for in 2019-20. On the other hand, they finished with the fourth-most goals against as well. The offence’s potency stood out without a doubt. Unfortunately, their incompetency in their own zone washed out all their creativity and poise in their opponent’s end.
In hindsight, the decision to sign Bobrovsky still makes a lot of sense. And while he definitely performed below expectations, the style in which the Panthers played does not give goalies much support. If anything, fans should be looking back and thinking, “maybe Reimer and Luongo took more of the blame than they should’ve” in the seasons prior to Bob’s arrival. After all, the defensive core was largely unchanged over the past few seasons.
Defensive Breakdown – and Changes for 2020-21
When reviewing the team’s back-end, Florida’s defensemen fit into one of three categories: offensive defensemen, inexperienced defensemen, and Anton Stralman.
The offensive defensemen category was the deepest, with the likes of Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, and Mike Matheson. The inexperienced category houses MacKenzie Weegar, Riley Stillman, Josh Brown, and the rest of the team’s depth at the AHL level. Anton Stralman, the 33-year old journeyman outside of both the above categories, provided a little bit of stability to a group that was embarrassingly unaware of their assignments in front of their own net.
New General Manager Bill Zito made some splashes immediately with the team when he took over after the Summer “Covid-19 Bubble” playoff run ended. This included a fan-favourite trade that exported Matheson to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Patric Hornqvist. He also signed a pair of free-agent defensemen in Markus Nutivaara and Radko Gudas.
Whether these changes will be enough to facelift one of the easiest teams to score against remains to be seen. The addition-by-subtraction benefit of losing Matheson, though, should be a good start. The once-highly touted 25-year-old looked lost at many times, and his possession metrics were all in the red. And, the grit that Radko Gudas brings to the table finally legitimizes their back end. Florida now possesses at least one quality tough-guy who can make life hard on forwards standing in and around Bobrovsky’s domain.
Engineering a Sergei Bobrovsky Bounce-Back
Zito made more than just roster adjustments to benefit Bobrovsky, as he established a brand-new Goaltending Excellence Department earlier this month. To build the department, he hired Francois Allaire as Goaltending Consultant and Roberto Luongo as Special Advisor to the General Manager. Luongo will oversee the Goaltending Excellence Department, which also includes the franchises two goaltending coaches; Robb Tallas (NHL) and Leo Luongo (AHL).
Luongo may be the most recognizable name to fans, but Allaire served as Lu’s goalie coach during his own career. Beyond that, Allaire developed and mentored Patrick Roy to two cups with the Montreal Canadiens, Jean-Sebastien Giguere to a championship with the Anaheim Ducks, and served as goalie coach for these teams as well as the Colorado Avalanche and Toronto Maple Leafs over a long and successful career.
Sergei Bobrovsky Bounce-Back Today, Spencer Knight Success Tomorrow
Now, this department’s creation came not only out of a current need but also a need for the team’s future. Bobrovsky’s contract runs another six years, so building an unprecedentedly strong group of coaches specific to his position, theoretically, should shore things up for that time span. But, beyond Bob, the Panthers have 2019 first-round draft pick Spencer Knight waiting in the wings.
Knight, 19, has yet to sign an entry-level deal. That means at least one more season until he plays professional hockey (AHL or NHL). However, the high expectations for the young goalie echo the early hype around Marc-Andre Fleury or Carey Price. After all, not many teams draft goalies in the first round.
In any case, the investment into goaltending development illustrates a pain-point with the team. Signing Bobrovsky last summer only serves as the beginning of this investment. His difficult first year confirmed that the problem lied deeper than just the starting goalie, and the most-recent roster adjustments reflect that. Drafting Spencer Knight, and now establishing a Goaltending Excellence Department gives them a nice feather in their cap.
All that being said, the team and fans still expect a Sergei Bobrovsky bounce-back. You don’t pay someone $10 million a season to post average numbers, much less below-average ones. Expectations should be high for the goalie, whose teammates call him the hardest-working guy on the team. It’s time now for all this investment to pay off.