In a ten-day span in the summer of 2019, the Florida Panthers thought they figured out their goaltending situation for the long-term. On June 21st of that year, they selected Spencer Knight at 13th overall in the NHL Entry Draft. Then, on the opening day of free agency (July 1st), they inked the biggest free-agent goaltender available, Sergei Bobrovsky, to a seven-year contract. Their plan looked obvious: hand the net to Bob until Knight reaches his potential as a franchise-calibre goaltending prospect. Fans rejoiced, believing the years of struggling between oft-injured Roberto Luongo and underperforming James Reimer were finally over. Nobody could have imagined that, by year two of Bobrovsky’s deal, he’d be watching from the bench as 27-year old journeyman Chris Driedger became the Panthers starting goalie.
Chris Driedger Taking Over as Starting Goalie in Florida
At the end of the day, head coach Joel Quenneville wants his team to win games. While Bobrovsky’s contract looms large, at $10 million per season through 2026, Driedger’s getting the job done in net. Through his first nine starts, Driedger owns seven wins and a solid .929 save percentage. His counterpart Bobrovsky is 5-2-1 with just a .889 save percentage. When measuring “Quality Starts”, Driedger’s .889 absolutely dwarfs Bob’s .375 by a long shot.
Chris Driedger’s Long Road to the NHL
The fact Driedger has been so successful recently is a testament to his commitment and hard work. Prior to 2019-20, Driedger’s professional career resided mostly in the minors. In fact, he’s only ever started games at the NHL level between this season and last with Florida. He did appear in three contests for the Ottawa Senators over a three-year span from 2014-2017, but only in relief efforts. From 2017 until his opportunity in Florida, Driedger split time between the ECHL and AHL levels. Strong play helped him climb his way back to the big leagues, yet the opportunity with Florida still looked like, at best, a backup role.
In 2019-20, Driedger got his shot in Florida’s net. Thanks to a combination of injuries and poor results from the team’s tandem of Bobrovsky and youngster Sam Montembeault, Driedger got an opportunity. He earned the shot with strong play in the minors, boasting a .932 save percentage with the Panthers’ AHL affiliate. That success translated far better than expected to the NHL level.
Driedger wound up starting the majority of Florida’s games down the stretch and performed fantastically with a 7-2-1 record in 10 starts. He even improved upon his stellar AHL numbers, putting up a .938 save percentage and 2.05 GAA. When COVID-19 postponed the season until the Stanley Cup Playoffs resumed in late summer, the team went back to Bobrovsky between the pipes. They hoped he might regain his Vezina form after the break, but the Panthers wound up bounced out in a brief four-game play-in series against the New York Islanders.
Driedger Leading the Way in 2021
Now, Driedger is working to prove that his ability exceeds beyond just a “flash-in-the-pan” last season. So far so good, too; the goaltender owns a 7-1-1 record, and has the full confidence of his teammates and coaches.
“He’s got an opportunity right now to get a little bit more than just the odd game,” said Quenneville regarding his decision to start Driedger in the team’s first matchup against the Dallas Stars. “He’s taken advantage of it. We’ll see how that plays out. We expect [Bobrovsky] to be pushing him and getting the net back, but the opportunity is there for Driegs to play a little bit more than normal. We’ll see where it takes us.”
Driedger then proceeded to win a tightly contested 2-1 matchup. It was a true goaltending battle, albeit one in which Stars goalie Anton Khudobin was far busier with over 50 saves. Either way, though, “Driegs” is getting it done.
The Broadcasters Love Starting Goalie Chris Driedger, Too
Two days later, Quenneville went back to Driedger for their second game against the Stars. That meant Bobrovsky started another night out on the bench, from where he’s sat now for five of the team’s last six matchups. It also means Driedger has ten starts compared to Bobrovsky’s eight. Mathematically, that indicates Chris Driedger is the team’s starting goalie.
The team’s broadcasters have been nothing-but complimentary of Driedger as well. During the first period against Dallas on both Monday and Wednesday, Dallas potted an early goal. Driedger stuck with it and bounced right back both nights. Announcer Steve Goldstein noted, “I don’t know if you can call a guy vintage when he only has 20 NHL decisions like Driedger, but, I’ll say that’s ‘typical’ Driedger. You get one by him, but, he calmly is able to close the door after that.” That’s quite the NHL reputation for a guy who, just two seasons ago, spent time with the Manchester Monarchs in the ECHL.
Watching him play, you’d think he’s a seasoned NHL’er. He approaches the game calmly and shows very little emotion from play-to-play. Just as Goldstein alluded, Driedger doesn’t get shaken up when a goal gets past him. In a position where mental fortitude is an absolute must, Driedger has loads of it.
Bob will undoubtedly get a shot again soon. In fact, he should draw in just a day after, in the back-half of a back-to-back series against Dallas. But the starting goalie job, for now, belongs to Chris Driedger.