The Florida Panthers have a very expensive goaltending problem

Sergei Bobrovsky signed a massive free agent deal with the Cats last summer and followed it up by getting crushed in the regular season. Can he find his form against the Islanders? His exhibition start against Tampa Bay didn't help matters.
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Mark Blinch/NHLI via USA TODAY Sports

Mark Blinch/NHLI via USA TODAY Sports

In terms of omens, the Florida Panthers couldn't do much worse that the 5-0 drubbing they suffered at the hands of the rival Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday. The Panthers are one of the lucky franchises to be included in the NHL's extended 24-team post-season field, but they sure looked like a team that would have missed the playoffs under normal circumstances against Tampa. There was one silver lining, however: the game didn't count for anything in the standings.

"Five goals, it's a lot," said goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. "The good thing is, it was an exhibition game. We realize we have to elevate to another level - maybe two levels."

And Bobrovsky himself will be a key element. He was signed to a massive free agent deal last summer and the contract is already looking like an albatross for a franchise that didn't have much of a history when it comes to splashing around cash before.

Bobrovsky really struggled during the regular season, with one of the worst goals saved above average (GSAA) numbers in the NHL (-14.9). His .900 save percentage and 3.23 goals-against average confirmed his woes and that's bad news for the Panthers, since he's eating up a big chunk of cap space. To paraphrase Roberto Luongo, his contract sucks.

Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina winner, still has six more years on a deal that comes with a cap hit of $10 million, made all the worse by the fact the Covid-19 pandemic is forcing the salary cap to flatten for the foreseeable future.

True, he was pretty good in the playoffs last year with Columbus, but the Blue Jackets are one of the most structured teams in the league and revel in playing mistake-free hockey. That's not the case in Florida, where most of the talent resides up front in offensive roles. But Panthers coach Joel Quenneville is sticking by Bobrovsky right now as Florida looks ahead to a qualifying round series against a sturdy New York Islanders team.

"We just want him to be consistent and comfortable in the net; moving and finding pucks and being Bob," Quenneville said. "I thought he got better as the (Tampa) game went on and looked bigger in the net."

Quenneville also noted that he liked Bobrovsky's training camp and liked the netminder's battle level.

"We know the importance of goaltending and we're going to rely on him," he said. "We're expecting him to do his thing."

Not that the Panthers have much of a choice. While Quenneville turned to the less-experienced Chris Driedger to bail the team out during the regular season, it would be a lot to expect the 26-year-old career minor-leaguer to jump in and rescue the Cats in a five-game series against an experienced Isles squad, should Bobrovsky falter early on.

Which begs the question: if Bobrovsky is washed, what do the Panthers do with him? The contract is too big to carry if he's not your starter anymore, but what other franchise would take him? Do you try to sweet-talk Seattle into absorbing his deal?

The Kraken don't start playing until 2021-22, so by that time the expansion squad would "only" be on the hook for five more years and maybe by then we start to see the salary cap creeping back up - but Seattle GM Ron Francis would be asking for quite a bit in return, I would have to imagine. You have to assume the price would be a first-rounder or two and Florida retaining some of Bobrovsky's salary. But that's assuming Francis wants to take on a horrid contract right off the bat (unlikely) and it also assumes Florida GM Dale Tallon is willing to part with such assets just to fix the books.

The Panthers do have a goalie of the future in Boston College's Spencer Knight and once he turns pro, Florida will have the low-cost benefit of Knight's entry-level contract to help the cap situation - which could balance out Bob's stipend a little.

Or maybe Bobrovsky bounces back and gives the Islanders hell in this series. That, of course, is the most ideal scenario and one I am sure Florida brass is collectively crossing their fingers over. At the least, the exhibition loss to Tampa Bay was a shot across the bow.

"We're going to move forward off that," Quenneville said. "We got a lesson and hopefully we can apply it at just the right time."

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