He was benched, humiliated. The two-time Vezina Trophy winner was deemed washed up. His playoff demons, which had haunted him for his career, had carried over into the regular season. By the end of the year, he had been effectively replaced in net by a journeyman backup that had won six of the last eight games of the years to put his team into the playoffs. But when this backup struggled in the playoffs, the team desperately returned to their former starter. And now, former Flyers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has carried his team into the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in his career.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia Flyers fans everywhere can’t help but wonder what if? Yes, there are other former Flyers on the Florida Panthers: Nick Cousins, Radko Gudas, and Alex Lyon. The three of these guys were good role players, but not key stars. But Bob….he could’ve been, should’ve been the guy who brought the Flyers to the NHL’s holy land.
We are all well versed in the story by now. Still, it is worth revisiting. Why is Bobrovsky not a Flyer?
He was signed by former general manager Paul Holmgren as an undrafted free agent in 2010. The Flyers had thought about drafting him in 2006, but were scared off because of the sometimes difficult problems it can take to sign a Russian player. Just ask Ivan Fedotov. But after four outstanding years with the Metallurg Novokuznetsk of the KHL, he was signed to a three-year entry level deal.
Bobrovsky came to training camp and blew everyone away. He was expected to go to Lehigh Valley, but stayed with the big club, effectively replacing injured starting goalie Michael Leighton and sharing duties with veteran backup Brian Boucher. He would with the NHL Rookie of the month award in November 2010. He would finish seventh in the Calder Trophy voting that year as he went 28-13-8 with a GAA of 2.59 and a save percentage of .915.
But then the playoffs came. The rookie, all of 22 years old, was horrific. He played in three games, losing two of them. His save percentage dipped to .877 and his GAA was 3.23.
It was because of his playoff experience that Holmgren decided to pull the plug on the Bobrovsky experiment and made the series of trades for Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryz was made the highest paid goalie in the league and it was expected that he would lead the Flyers to the playoffs and be victorious. He wasn’t. Meanwhile, Bobrovsky played the backup role.
Bobrovsky was earning $900,000 as a backup. That’s not bad for one as talented as he was, but the Flyers decided that Bobrovsky had value and should be sold off before his stock plummeted. Also, it was believed that getting rid of Bob might make Bryz more comfy in Philly. So, Holmgren flipped Bobrovsky to Columbus for three draft picks: a second rounder (Anthony Stolarz), a fourth rounder (Taylor Leier), and another fourth rounder that would be traded away.
Bryzgalov, as we all remember, ended up becoming a hugely epic disaster in Philadelphia. Bobrovsky, on the other hand, won the Vezina Trophy in his first year in Columbus as he went 21-11-5 with a .932 save percentage and a GAA of 2.00, both of them still career highs. He also posted four shutouts. And he did this on a team that didn’t reach the playoffs.
However, playoff struggles continued for Bob. In seven seasons with the Blue Jackets, they made the playoffs four times. In only one of those seasons, did Columbus make it out of the first round. That year was 2018-19 and his head coach was John Tortorella.
After being bounced by the Boston Bruins in six games in the playoffs, Bobrovsky hit the free agency market for the first time. He went south to Florida on a contract, that with bonuses, paid him $12 million a season. He is, currently, the highest paid goalie in the NHL. He is still signed under contract with Florida for the next three seasons as well.
In Florida, it hasn’t been easy. On average, his save percentage has been lower and his goals against average have been higher in Miami than it was in Columbus. While Florida has made the playoffs each year, including last year winning the President’s Trophy, they have struggled in the postseason. In his first two seasons in Florida, the Panthers were bounced out in the first round. The following year, they were swept by in-state rival Tampa in the second round.
This year, it seemed like more of the following. He never seemed to get into a rhythm. There were nights he looked like a brick wall. There were others that he looked like he was made of Swiss cheese. Because of his struggles, he was benched in favor of former Flyer goalie Alex Lyon down the stretch. It was Lyon who rescued the Panthers’ season and got them into the playoffs. Fun fact: what if Pittsburgh had won just one of their last three games? Would Pittsburgh had beaten Boston? Would Carolina be in the Finals? Just ponder that for a while.
Lyon struggled against the mighty Boston Bruins, winning just one of his three starts. With the season on the line, Florida head coach Paul Maurice called on Bobrovsky to save the Panthers. In 13 starts, he has won 11 games, including sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes. He currently leads all playoff goalies with 896 minutes in net, 504 save attempts, and 471 saves. He’s been under fire from Boston, Toronto, and Carolina including playing in that epic 4OT thriller. In short, Bob has been amazing. And now, the Panthers are representing the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup. And the way things are going, it while either be him or Matthew Tkachuk who will bringing home the Conn Smythe Trophy.
And yet, as Flyers fans, we can’t help but wonder. What if they never made the move to acquire Bryzgalov? What if they held onto Jeff Carter and Mike Richards? Or, what if they made the trades that brought in Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and others but held onto Bobrovsky? What if Holmgren hadn’t pulled the trigger on Bob so soon? Would the Flyers have been a Stanley Cup contender? Would Bobrovsky have shaken off his playoff demons earlier and helped the Flyers go deep? How would Flyers history be different?
There is no way to know. We don’t have a DeLorean and can’t use the Time Stone to change it all up. But it makes you wonder. Did the Flyers find their goalie of the future 10 years ago and did they give up on him? It’s hard to watch the Florida Panthers right now and not think about it.