Almost a week removed from the start of NHL free agency, the dust is beginning to settle on some of the bigger contracts of the day. Of all the players to sign new deals on July 1, only one contract (Artemi Panarin’s deal with the New York Rangers) was more costly overall or per year than the one the Florida Panthers gave goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
There has been a great deal of criticism aimed at the Panthers for offering a seven-year, $70-million contract to a goaltender who will be 31 before the start of the regular season. But the bigger picture reveals that while the contract is indeed a gamble, it’s the correct gamble for Florida to take at this juncture.
Panthers’ Porous Goaltending
The Panthers finished the 2018-19 season 12 points outside of a playoff spot, but it wasn’t because of their offense. They were ninth in the league with 3.1 goals per game throughout the regular season, and they had five players (Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, and Keith Yandle) with 60 points or more.
As good as their offense was, their goaltending was equally poor. They were fourth in the league, trailing only the Ottawa Senators, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Philadelphia Flyers in goals against, allowing 273 on the season. Despite turning to four different goalies, they could never find a solution to what ailed them most.
Legendary goaltender Roberto Luongo, who recently announced his retirement, struggled to stay healthy and posted a career low in save percentage (SV%, .899) and a goals-against average (GAA) that was the second-worst mark in his career (3.12).
Florida’s primary backup plan, James Reimer, was a total disaster for the first time in his career, as he went 13-12-5 and matched his lowest ever SV% (.900). The Panthers looked at two other options briefly: Michael Hutchinson, whom they eventually traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, got four starts and posted awful numbers (.839 SV%, 4.17 GAA). Meanwhile, Sam Montembeault, who looks likely to be the backup for Bobrovsky, went 4-3-2 with an .894 SV% and a 3.04 GAA).
Bobrovsky’s Sterling Career
It is readily apparent that the Panthers were desperately in need of a solution in net, and there are few better options than Bobrovsky. He is the only active goaltender to win the Vezina Trophy twice, most recently in 2017.
In his career, the Russian netminder has posted incredible numbers, with a .919 SV% and a 2.46 GAA in nine seasons. That puts him fifth and ninth, respectively, amongst active goaltenders. At his best, though, no one can approach him In his 2016-17 Vezina campaign, he led the league in SV% (.931), GAA (2.06), goals saved above average (33.45), adjusted goals against average (2.36), and goalie point shares (14.9).
Despite some struggles this past season, he still led the league in shutouts, with nine. And he further put to bed the longstanding questions about whether he was a playoff performer. He went 6-4-0, with a .925 SV% and a 2.41 GAA, helping the Columbus Blue Jackets sweep the potent Tampa Bay Lightning and make the second round for the first time in franchise history.
The links between the Panthers and Bobrovsky have been rumored for months, dating back to at least the trade deadline. The fit made too much sense: Bobrovsky reportedly liked the idea of living in the Miami area, and the Panthers desperately needed a goaltender. The price tag was high, but the fit was too good to pass up. Especially after Florida made its other massive acquisition of the offseason.
The Quenneville Factor
Shortly after the end of the regular season, the Panthers announced that they had hired possibly the hottest free agent of all, head coach Joel Quenneville. One of his focuses whenever he arrives in a new location is identifying who his goaltender is going to be.
For the Panthers, the answer was Bobrovsky, as good a goaltender as you are likely to get without drafting and developing one. That was clearly an answer that appealed to Quenneville, as he committed to coaching in Florida for the foreseeable future.
Yes, a seven-year, $70-million contract for a 30-year-old goaltender is a significant risk. But for a goaltender like Bobrovsky, and a team like the Panthers, it is the right risk to take. If guaranteeing the acquisition was part of the process of landing Quenneville, then it makes even more sense.
The final few seasons of this contract may be unpleasant. But if that’s the cost of returning the Panthers to playoff and Stanley Cup contention, no one will mind. At this juncture, this was the perfect gamble for the Panthers.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.