No Average Bob
The NHL’s second half is about to kick off, and the Philadelphia Flyers find themselves atop the league’s overall standings this late in a season for the first time in a quarter century. While there are many reasons for the team’s historic performance thus far, there is one player in particular who’s garnering most of the media attention. His name is Sergei Bobrovsky, “Bob” for short, and his grasp of the English language is essentially limited to friendly introductory phrases like “What’s up?” and “My name is Sergei.” His grasp on how to effectively stop the puck, however, is significantly less tenuous. Whenever the Flyers come up as a topic of conversation, you can be sure Bob’s name will soon follow. For good reason, too. The Flyers haven’t seen a young goalie this talented since the days of Ron Hextall in the late ’80s, and everyone associated with the team couldn’t be more giddy about the development that’s taking place. It appears as though the annual questions surrounding the Flyers’ goalie situation are about to disappear as quickly as the puck once it hits Bob’s equipment, jinxes be damned.
Allow me to take you back to early May of last year, as the Flyers were in the midst of pulling off a miraculous comeback from a 3-0 series deficit against the Boston Bruins that can only be described as one of the most remarkable playoff accomplishments in pro sports history. In a move that barely registered a blip on the sports news radar, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren signed little-known Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who had toiled in relative obscurity for three seasons as a member of Metallurg Novokuznetsk of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Novokuznetsk’s perennial status as one of the league’s bottom feeders was reflected in Bobrovsky’s record, as he went 7-20-2 and 9-22-3 in his two full seasons as a starter. Still, it’s important to remember that wins and losses are much more of a team stat and should not be used to judge a goalie’s ability. Look a little deeper, and you’ll see that Bob’s goalie-centric statistics of goals against average (GAA) and save percentage (SV%) were more indicative of a supremely talented player with the misfortune of being buried on a porous team. In 2008-2009, he posted a 2.49 GAA and simply stellar .927 SV%, and followed up that performance the next season with a 2.72 GAA and .919 SV%. Couple the team’s failures with Novokuznetsk’s undesirable location in the southernmost dregs of Siberia, and it’s not hard to understand why Bobrovsky was such an unknown commodity. Hell, even Holmgren had never seen the young goalie play in person before agreeing to offer him a contract. Instead, it was the persistence of Neil Little — a Flyers scout and longtime goalie for its minor league affiliate who was alerted of Bob’s existence by Russian scout Ken Hoodikoff — that swayed the Flyers’ general manager to pull the trigger (although Holmgren has insisted that the team considered taking Bobrovsky in the later rounds of the 2007 draft but was dissuaded over concerns regarding the uncertain transfer agreement between the NHL and KHL). Personally, I don’t care who gets the credit for bringing Sergei Bobrovsky to Philadelphia. I’m just happy the soft-spoken 22-year-old plays for my team.
Being the hopeless nerd that I am, I frequent NHL message boards on the Internet, namely Hockey’s Future. Nothing goes unnoticed in that forum, and the Bobrovsky signing was reported before it actually became official. If you know anything about the Flyers, you know that the team and Russians have typically mixed about as well as oil and water ever since the Broad Street Bullies’ awesomely brutal annihilation of the Soviet Red Army juggernaut in 1976. Sure, there have been Russians along the way that have donned the orange and black, but the Flyers will never be confused with the modern day Washington Capitals in that respect. As such, I immediately thought to myself that the player personnel brain trust must have seen something it really liked in this Bobrovsky kid. As soon as I read about the signing, I took to Google to research the organization’s newest goalie prospect. Not surprisingly, there was very little information to be found, aside from Bob’s career stats on hockeydb.com. Still, his goals against average and save percentage — especially while playing behind a last place team — led me to conclude that the Flyers may just have found themselves a hidden gem. Moreover, I read that Sergei Nemchinov, former head coach of the Russian Junior team, chose Bobrovsky as his starting goalie over the more highly regarded Semyon Varlamov during the 2008 World Junior Championships because he “trusted” him more. Based on this preliminary research, my interest in the young netminder was piqued. If nothing else, Bob was an intriguing prospect with obvious talent, and I was excited to see him come to North America and play for the Flyers’ minor league affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms. I immediately texted a bunch of friends who double as diehard Flyers fans and told them to file Bobrovsky’s name away in their memory. Naturally, none of them had any idea who or what I was talking about and just as soon forgot my suggestion entirely. Besides, we were embroiled in a truly captivating playoff run… who had time to think about Sergei freakin’ Bobrovsky?
Fast forward four months. At the tender age of 21 and having never played on an NHL-sized rink before, it was generally assumed that Bob would need at least a few years of seasoning in the minors before being ready to try his hand at the pro game. Apparently, he never got the memo that he had no chance of cracking the Flyers’ opening day roster, let alone winning the starting goalie job. Before the beginning of training camp, there were rumblings on the Hockey’s Future message board that a number of scouts were of the opinion Bobrovsky was going to shock everybody with his play. Sure enough, it took a little less than one full day for Bob to prove he belonged with the big boys. None of the players had any idea who this kid was, they just knew they couldn’t score on him in practice. From that point on, there was a palpable buzz at training camp: The Flyers had possibly found their starting goalie of the future. I texted my friends again and asked if they remembered Sergei Bobrovsky. If not, it was time to take notice because it seemed increasingly likely that he’d be making the team’s opening day roster. Three days after training camp opened, Bob turned 22. Two weeks later, after posting an eye-popping 1.37 GAA and .952 SV% in 175 minutes played during the preseason and earning the trust of head coach Peter Laviolette, the rookie started the first game of the Philadelphia Flyers’ 2010-2011 season against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not since the end of the lockout had I been so excited for a season opener. Within the first ten minutes of his NHL career, Bob had made a few acrobatic, sparkling saves and stonewalled the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. My friend and I looked at each other, mouths agape, and nodded in a mixture of approval, disbelief, and euphoria.
When you watch Bob play, a few things stick out immediately. First, his quickness and athleticism. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve never seen a goalie move post-to-post as fast as Bob — shots that he shouldn’t even be able to get to end up looking like routine saves. Second, his flexibility, which is actually the main contributor to his cat-like quickness. I’ve torn groin muscles just watching Bob do splits as he whips his leg out to kick away the puck at the last possible moment before it crosses the goal line (video example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INEpytKujz0). He literally takes away the entire bottom of the net. Third is Bob’s ability to adapt and seamlessly incorporate into his game the teachings of goalie coach Jeff Reese (who has been a godsend for this organization, by the way). His rebound control has improved by leaps and bounds, to the point that he now rarely gives up second chance opportunities after making the initial save (he also has a knack for saving a shot and directing the puck into the corner with his goalie stick all in one motion). Whereas Bob had a tendency to play deep in his net at the beginning of the season, he’s now coming out to cut down the angle and challenge shooters. Also, he’s getting much more comfortable playing the puck — he even made a superb outlet pass to start an odd man rush during a game last week after he noticed the Flyers had a chance to catch the opposition in the middle of a line change. However, Bob’s best asset, in my opinion, rests between the ears. He’s humble and selfless yet has steadfast confidence in his abilities, displays a maturity that belies his age, and prepares for games like a veteran; don’t let the perpetual smile fool you, Bob is all business. He never gets too high or too low emotionally and is only concerned with winning hockey games. What’s more, he’s driven to be the best and is never satisfied. Bob’s pleasant demeanor and professionalism have endeared him to everyone in the locker room, as well, where adoration and praise for the rookie goalie are both unanimous and effusive. You can tell he is a sharp, thoughtful young man with a good sense of humor, too (video evidence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur4UKm7-gWE). Learning English and verbally communicating with teammates will come with time, but the language barrier really hasn’t been that serious an obstacle. Besides, as Chris Pronger said in an interview with Versus a few weeks back, he and Bob already both speak the same language — hockey.
It’s been a long time since a Flyers goalie generated this kind of excitement throughout the organization and fan base. Maybe, just maybe, the team has found the top-notch goalie that can be the final piece to the championship puzzle. One thing’s for sure: Sergei Bobrovsky is the future. And the future is now.