Few teams needed better goaltending more than the Florida Panthers last summer. So, when Sergei Bobrovsky hit the free agent market, the Panthers ignored red flags like age and a mixed 2018-19 season to snatch Bob up.
On paper, the move makes a ton of sense. The Panthers disappointed last season, yet there was a feeling of “… But what if they could just get some stops?” Then, poof here comes a seemingly perfect opportunity. Goalies of Bobrovsky’s caliber rarely hit the open market. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time a two-time Vezina winner became available at least somewhat close to their prime years, yet there Bobrovsky was.
But, again, there were some red flags flashing.
During a busy Saturday afternoon in the NHL, the hockey world got a reminder that you don’t always get what you pay for when you hand $10 million per year to a goalie, even one as accomplished as Bobrovsky.
Panthers pull Bobrovsky against Sabres
The Panthers likely already entered the first intermission vs. Buffalo with serious frustration. Despite managing an 11-5 shots on goal advantage through 20 minutes, the Sabres managed a 1-0 lead.
Things spiraled out of control for Bobrovsky and the Panthers during the middle frame, as Bob allowed two more goals. Joel Quenneville saw enough, pulling Bobrovsky after the 31-year-old gave up three goals on just seven SOG.
Blaming Bobrovsky alone is unfair, as he could only do so much. Take, for example, this Conor Sheary 2-0 goal:
Still, there’s only so much you can do when a goalie barely stops more than half of the attempts he faces.
Bobrovsky giving Panthers more of the same numbers
Teams who allow too many goals face chicken-and-the-egg arguments. That’s often fitting, really, because usually the problems are a mix: goalies should stop more pucks, but their teams could put them in better situations.
Panthers GM Dale Tallon either misdiagnosed the problem as mostly goalie-related, or was throwing up a Hail Mary pass that Bobrovsky could save his bacon.
Either way, it’s painful to note how similar the Panthers’ problems are despite throwing a ton of money and resources at goaltending.
Heading into Saturday, Bobrovsky sported a putrid .897 save percentage. Adjusting for context only helps so much; Bob’s -10.94 goals saved against average languishes among the worst in the NHL. By that standard at Hockey Reference, Bob has only been slightly more effective than the likes of Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones, starters suffering through profoundly miserable seasons.
Also uncomfortable: comparing 2018-19 Reimer with the 2019-20 version. Nestled in the Carolina Hurricanes cocoon, Reimer improved his save percentage to .914 versus last season’s rough .900 mark. Reimer’s career average is also .914, making you wonder what happened in Florida — though it’s crucial to remember that, as always, “goalies are voodoo.”
Nature versus nurture
When the Panthers hired Quenneville, they described Coach Q as “transformative.” So far, the Panthers’ overall play seems … mostly middle of the pack?
Quantity and quality against
MIN, CBJ, and PIT allow similarly low levels of quality against. But PIT doesn't allow any quantity either, while MIN, CBJ are more average.
CHI, WPG, SJS allow very high rates of quality against. But SJS restricts quantity while WPG, CHI…don't. pic.twitter.com/xAAJEtFgRJ
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) January 4, 2020
The Panthers give the impression of probably deserving a little bit better from goaltending, but by how much? What portion of the blame goes to Bobrovsky and other goalies versus the team around them?
Panthers outscore some, but not all, of their problems
Florida deserves credit for hanging around the East playoff bubble considering their troubles stopping pucks.
While allowing a third-worst 3.35 goals against per game (before Saturday) qualifies as worrisome, the Panthers also rank third-best with 3.55 goals for per game. The Panthers generate more goals than they allow, so maybe the situation isn’t so dire.
Perhaps the Panthers’ well-compensated coach can turn enough knobs to make life easier for their well-compensated goalie?
After performances like Saturday’s dud against Buffalo, it’s easy to get pessimistic about Bobrovsky. An optimist may counter that Florida isn’t that far away from finding the right balance.
Unfortunately, a realist will note that the Panthers wouldn’t be in the playoffs if they began right now, and face a significant hill to climb in an Atlantic Division that’s starting to look stacked once again — at least at the top.