It’s been said the Blue Jackets will only go as far as Sergei Bobrovsky will take them.
Debatable, sure. But after watching Team Russia at the World Cup, it’s easier to make the argument.
In the wake of Bobrovsky’s scintillating effort in a 4-3 win over Team North America — 43 saves, 19 on the power play — it’s clear the most valuable Russian isn’t Alexander Ovechkin, or Evgeni Malkin, or Vladimir Tarasenko.
“I would like to thank Sergei Bobrovsky for this win,” Artemi Panarin said, per the Russian Hockey Federation. “If he hadn’t played so well, the score would have been different.”
Bobrovsky was terrific, a continuation of the form shown throughout the exhibition and World Cup campaign. All told, he’s stopped 144 of 155 shots faced — a .929 save percentage — and posted his best performances against (arguably) the two best teams in this tournament: Canada, and TNA.
All of which is music to Jarmo Kekalainen’s ears.
The Blue Jackets GM knows how vital Bobrovsky is to the club’s success. When the franchise broke a four-season playoff drought in 2013-14, Bobrovksy was a big reason why. He started 58 games that season, going 32-20-5 with a .923 save percentage. He captured the Vezina, and was Columbus’ clear MVP.
Likewise, it was Bobrovsky’s struggles that played a major role in the Jackets’ disaster of a 2015-16 campaign. Not only did his save percentage fall to .908, a recurring groin injury limited him to just 37 appearances.
Add it all up, and the formula is simple — Columbus needs Bobrovsky to make a lot of starts, and play well in those starts.
Which is why keeping him healthy is so important.
This summer, Columbus hired a “high performance” consultant by the name of Nelson Ayotte. The purpose of the hire was to “bridge the gap between the medical staff and the staff of strength and conditioning coach Kevin Collins,” but Kekalainen specifically pointed out it was “a huge priority” for Ayotte to keep Bobrovsky healthy.
So far, so good. Bobrovsky already seems to have benefited from tweaks to his offseason training regimen.
But it’s a bit alarming to think just how much is riding on him this season.
Columbus is desperate to get back into the postseason after missing in each of the last two years. The management group of Kekalainen and president John Davidson has to be feeling the pressure, especially with a $69 million payroll and some of their highest profile moves (like signing Nathan Horton, then trading Horton for David Clarkson) going bust.
Kekalainen’s already played one of his biggest cards — firing Todd Richards in favor of John Tortorella — and Torts will undoubtedly be feeling heat this season, especially if the U.S. flames out of the World Cup.
So over to you, Bob. No pressure.