The Florida Panthers technically don’t need No. 1 goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
Granted, as far as understatements go, that’s a pretty big one. There’s no denying Bobrovsky has gone a mediocre 23-19-6 this season (more losses than wins) with a .900 save percentage and downright horrible 3.23 goals-against average. They certainly don’t need that kind of goaltending.
Bobrovsky Struggles with Panthers
It makes more sense to qualify the above statement. For example, the Panthers technically don’t even need the Bobrovsky they thought they were getting. And, sure, the Bobrovsky they thought they were getting had won the Vezina Trophy twice.
However, he’s also 31 and just coming off his only playoff-round victory last spring, meaning the Panthers were signing him for his regular-season prowess, on which he clearly hasn’t delivered. As a result, barring a drastic turnaround, it’s just as fair to say his seven-year, $70 million deal will go down as one of the biggest mistakes in franchise history.
Based on Bobrovsky’s career up to now, they’re effectively just as likely to find success in the playoffs (assuming they even make it as 11th seeds) with backup Chris Driedger. In fact, based on Driedger’s stats, a 7-2-1 record with a 2.05 GAA and .938 save percentage, they’re more likely to find success in general with him in net.
Bobrovsky vs. Driedger
Of course, Driedger has split time in the No. 2 position with Samuel Montembeault, with the latter actually having made more appearances. So, Driedger is about as clear of a backup as an alligator in a lake full of crocodiles. You’re probably more focused on staying alive than identifying who’s who.
However, that’s in part the point. Few if any knew heading into this season what the Panthers had in him when they signed him two Februarys ago for all intents and purposes as an American Hockey League goalie, with just three NHL games played since getting drafted in the third round in 2012.
Few probably have much more of an idea now, with his NHL track record as short as it is, but it is undeniably encouraging. The Panthers can nevertheless be forgiven for initially looking past Driedger on their depth chart considering his 25 years of age and underwhelming level of big-game experience.
Panthers Draft Knight
In that respect, the Bobrovsky signing makes sense. However, it doesn’t, at least not completely, in light of the fact that literally 10 days before they inked their new No. 1 goalie, complete with a no-movement clause for the first five of seven seasons, they drafted their goalie of the future in Spencer Knight at No. 13 overall in last summer’s first round.
The Knight selection was understandable, as it was effectively born out of desperation. Former-starter Roberto Luongo retired last summer. James Reimer was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for Scott Darling, who was promptly bought out (justifiably as well). Based on his lack of success with the Canes, Darling wasn’t going to be the answer in net for the Panthers, but neither were any of their recent goalie selections at the draft.
Excluding Knight, their last goalie picks were literally four drafts prior in 2015, which speaks to major mismanagement considering Luongo was far from a spring chicken when the Panthers re-acquired him in 2014. A year later, the Panthers made Montembeault a third-round pick (No. 77), while Ryan Bednard was taken in the seventh (No. 206).
Bednard, 23, is still on his entry-level deal and remains a bit of a project with a relatively low ceiling. Having made the majority of his starts in the ECHL last season, he finds himself behind free-agent-signee Philippe Desrosiers on the depth chart. A pending restricted free agent, Desrosiers, who has had a decent season in the AHL for the Springfield Thunderbirds, is in in a similar situation as Driedger, at risk of being a career minor-leaguer. Unfortunately for the soon-to-be 25-year-old, lightning is unlikely to strike twice in the same organization, logically speaking and based on his scouting reports.
Panthers Come Up Empty at Draft
Besides Knight, Montembeault and Bednard, there were only three other goalies the Panthers drafted after Jacob Markstrom (No. 31 in 2008), who went the other way in the Luongo deal. None of them will pan out. Hugo Fagerblom (No. 182 in 2014), Evan Cowley (No. 92 in 2013) and Sam Brittain (No. 92 in 2010) have a combined zero games of NHL experience. More to the point, they have zero games played in North America this season between them and are each out of the Panthers system.
So, that leaves the initially mentioned five goalies on the Panthers’ depth chart, headlined by Bobrovsky. The situation looks bleak, but, even if Driedger fails to maintain the same level of stellar play, he should still remain a cost-effective alternative in net, at least for next season, after which he’ll be an unrestricted free according to CapFriendly.
Practially speaking, the Panthers are unlikely to pursue a replacement for Bobrovsky on the free-agent market. Simply put, that implies overpaying for one, whether it be Robin Lehner or Jaroslav Halak, and devoting much more than the $10 million plus they already are to the goaltending position is a recipe for disaster. Similarly, the Panthers shouldn’t conceivably trade for a replacement, because there really isn’t one who can do as good of a job at as affordable of a rate as Driedger.
Opportunities Abound for Driedger
If he keeps it up, Driedger will obviously be in line for a raise. The good news is, as precarious of a position as the Panthers are in salary-cap wise, they do have the contracts of Mike Hoffman and Evgeni Dadonov (and Erik Haula and Brian Boyle and Mark Pysyk) coming off the books this summer (if the Panthers so choose). It then becomes a matter of spending wisely and re-assessing Driedger’s potential. He’ll get his payday, but won’t break the bank due to his limited track record.
From there, the bridge connecting the Bobrovsky era and that of Knight, who’s developing nicely at Boston College, won’t be nearly as daunting in length. He’ll sign his cost-effective entry-level deal when it’s time, potentially replacing Driedger/ Montembeault on the depth chart.
There are obviously a lot of uncertainties in the air: namely when the Panthers will sign Knight and how his game will ultimately translate to the NHL level. Nevertheless, the whole situation is much more manageable than it appears at first glance. A few things must admittedly swing their way for it to work, but, keep in mind, this is all assuming Bobrovsky completely fails to regain some semblance of his dominance.
Even then, it should have been clear from the get-go Bobrovsky was never going to be a viable long-term solution in net. You don’t sign a 31-year-old to a seven-year deal thinking he’ll be effective all the way through, or at least you shouldn’t. That’s the Bobrovsky the Panthers thought they were getting, a glorified stop-gap measure.
Hell, you shouldn’t sign a 31-year-old to a seven-year deal at all, but what’s done is done and, as far as stop-gap measures go, Driedger’s proven to be at least that. That’s what the Panthers absolutely need. Doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.