The best goalie outside the NHL suddenly isn’t outside the NHL anymore. And just as suddenly, the Florida Panthers’ crease just got a lot more crowded. When the Panthers announced they had signed former Boston College and U.S. World Junior standout Spencer Knight to an entry-level deal Wednesday, it was with the clear intent that he stay with the NHL team the rest of this season.
In fact, don’t be the least bit surprised if Knight, selected 13th overall by the Panthers in 2019, sees NHL action at some point. After signing his contract, the first order of business is for Knight to join the team in Florida, where he’ll likely be placed on the taxi squad. But early indications are that he will not spend any time in the American League this season. He’ll earn a pro-rated portion of his minor league salary of $70,000 on the taxi squad, which will shift to his $835,000 stipend if he is moved to the active roster.
What this means for Florida’s goaltending in the long-term is fairly clear. Sergei Bobrovsky has five years remaining on his deal after this season, but coach Joel Quenneville has not hesitated to play backup Chris Driedger. The same will be the case for Knight, who will ultimately play ahead of Bobrovsky if he proves to be the better option. In the short-term, Driedger, who has been outstanding this season, will not be back in Florida next season. Would the Panthers consider trading Driedger before the April 12 trade deadline in order to make room for Knight? Possibly, but not likely. Driedger’s numbers have actually been superior to Bobrovsky’s this season, although Bobrovsky’s game has picked up after another slow start to the season. I’m told the only way the Panthers would consider trading Driedger is if they receive an offer that is simply too good to refuse. And even if they did that, they would almost certainly go out and get a veteran backup as insurance.
So Knight will almost certainly be part of a three-goalie makeup after the trade deadline and until the end of the playoffs. The way the Panthers see it, there’s more to be gained by Knight being around and practicing with the NHL team than there is playing in the minors. In December, GM Bill Zito established a department of goaltending excellence for the team, headed up by former Panther star goalie Roberto Luongo. Also on the staff are longtime goaltending coaches Francois Allaire and Robb Tallas. “It’s obviously great to have that many goalie resources,” Knight said. “I think it will help and I think a lot of teams are going to start doing that, but I talk to Roberto…gosh, he sends me texts all the time and he calls me every few weeks just to check in. It’s nice to know that they are there for you as a person, not just for hockey. Having that support system, not only off the ice, but on the ice, is important.”
For Knight, it was a natural progression for him to turn pro. He’s played the past two years at Boston College and was lights-out in his sophomore season, posting a 16-4-1 record and a .932 save percentage for the Eagles, whose season ended earlier than expected when they were defeated by 4-1 by St. Cloud State in the regionals last weekend. He was both the player and the goaltender of the year in Hockey East and is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in U.S. college hockey. On the international stage he had an even bigger impact. After giving up four goals on 12 shots to Russia in the first game of the World Junior Championship, Knight got the net back and ran the table, stopping all 34 shots he faced in a 2-0 win over Canada in the gold medal game, bettering fellow Panther prospect Devon Levi in the Canadian net. Knight was particularly heroic in the third period when the Americans were outshot 15-1.
Knight has been a legitimate NHL prospect for a long time, but it’s still taking time for the enormity of the latest career development to sink in. “It almost doesn’t seem real yet, to be honest with you,” the 20-year-old said. “I grew up watching the NHL when I was four, five years old and it seems like a far-off fantasy land sometimes when you’re not there. I still don’t even realize what I’m doing, I guess you could say. But I think once I get there and I see who’s around me, it will be pretty cool and I think I’ll take it all in.”