Sergei Bobrovsky: Palm trees and puck-stopping

Bobrovsky couldn’t resist the lure of a sunny off-ice lifestyle and a promising young group of players. The Panthers suit him perfectly.
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Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers

Sergei Bobrovsky plays social media as well as he does his position.

Did stories about a South Beach vacation bode well for the Florida Panthers? Was the video of a close shave designed to appease New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello? Could the cryptic, topless modelling session with buddy Artemi Panarin mean teams could only get a package deal?

Turns out the optics were a tease. Bobrovsky had his sights on Florida all along. “It was fun,” said Bobrovsky, 30. “We’re now on the other side of business. (Artemi) is happy. I am happy. I’m looking forward to playing for the Panthers.”

Florida did not send shockwaves through the NHL by signing Bobrovsky and Panarin, but it landed the piece that mattered most with a seven-year, $70-million deal. “It wasn’t really a hard decision for me,” Bobrovsky said. “I saw the bright future this team has with a great coach, great management, with the really talented group of guys. I am excited to be here.”

Bobrovsky’s ties to South Florida benefitted the Panthers. He owns property in Miami and loves everything about the area – the restaurants, shopping and laidback lifestyle. “You’re going to have lots of vitamin D for your health,” he said. “It’s special conditions to play hockey. It’s a winter sport, but you are always in the sun, the ocean. I have to make sure I get the good sunscreen.

“It’s nice and easy. You can relax and go away from hockey outside of the building. That’s also a really good thing for a goalie.”

Making room in the crease proved challenging and costly for Florida. Roberto Luongo announced his retirement June 26. Four days later, the Panthers traded James Reimer to the Carolina Hurricanes and bought out incoming goalie Scott Darling. On top of the $10-million cap hit for Bobrovsky, Florida will contend with a minimum $2.3 million in recapture penalties and buyouts on former goalies alone for the next three seasons.

Fixing its crease was crucial, though. The Panthers have been without a clear, healthy No. 1 for three seasons. They hit bottom in 2018-19 by allowing a franchise-worst 273 goals against. Career years by Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau have been wasted, and the Cats’ young defense hasn’t had the benefit of a netminder to bail them out after mistakes. “We were not satisfied with what happened last year,” said GM Dale Tallon. “I talked to (Barkov), and I talked to a couple of other players, and they’re very excited about what we’ve done here to make our team better.”

When the Panthers realized signing Panarin would wreck future accounting, they focused on improving defense by adding Anton Stralman and the forward depth through Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari. But Bobrovsky, of course, is the headliner addition. “He gives you a chance to win every night,” Tallon said. “He’s durable. He’s a very good player. He’s a student of the game. Nobody works harder. It’ll be interesting to see guys like Barkov and Bobrovsky working off the ice. That will be a great example for our young players to follow.”

Another intangible for Florida’s youth is having a player who can relay what it takes to mature and overcome on-ice struggles. ”Nobody said it’s going to be smooth and nice,” Bobrovsky said. “We have to overcome some adversity, but those things make us stronger.”

Bobrovsky earned recognition as an elite goalie by age 28, capturing two Vezina Trophies and once finishing as a finalist for the Hart Trophy. But the post-season proved enigmatic. He entered the 2019 playoffs with a 5-14 record and no series victories to his credit. It was not anticipated much would change against a Tampa Bay team the Russian called “one of the best teams in NHL history.”

Instead, Bobrovsky silenced critics in Columbus’ series sweep, posting a 2.00 goals-against average and .932 save percentage against the most prolific offense the NHL has seen since 1995-96.

Panthers coach Joel Quenneville sees his new goaltender being a key factor in getting his team back to the playoffs and having success once they’re there. “Goaltending can be the difference with a key save at the right time,” Quenneville said. “You can look back to Game 1 in that Tampa (series). They’re down, and (Tampa) had a couple of big chances early in the second period. It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen that night, and that might have been a pivotal situation in the whole series.

“He’s got capabilities of winning games outright, of making consistent saves and making it be predictable.”

Bobrovsky’s cerebral approach to his routine and game also stood out in meetings with the Panthers’ brass. “He’s very prepared in how he plans out the whole year, how he emphasizes the off-season and uses it to his advantage,” Quenneville said. “Going into games, practices, he’s got a real routine, how he gets himself ready to be the guy he’s got to be.”

Said Tallon: “He works so hard that you’ve got to tell him to back off sometimes.”

Hard? Work? Not for Bobrovsky. “I love what I’m doing. It’s my life. It’s my art,” he said. “I try to build the best version of myself every day. It takes lots of time, lots of energy, and I enjoying doing that. I wouldn’t say I work, you know?

“I just love, love, love, love my art.”

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