The reinvention of the Florida Panthers continued today with a massive new contract for free agent goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, worth a reported $70 million over the next seven years. By signing the two-time Vezina winner and former Blue Jacket, the Panthers hope that they’ve captured a key ingredient they were missing last year—a steady presence in net. And even though they may have overpaid for a guy of Bobrovsky’s age and talent, if the Panthers’ offseason goal was to transform themselves into a clear playoff threat, they’ve succeeded.
The Panthers were 12 points out of a playoff spot last season, and you can blame almost all of that on pitiful goaltending. At a position basically split evenly between Roberto Luongo and James Reimer, the team could only manage a total save percentage of .891, second-worst in the league. Luongo retired this offseason, and Reimer just got traded to the Hurricanes to free up space for Bobrovsky. In their place, they now have a goaltender who—despite tapering off a bit since a dominant 2016–17—still vastly exceeds the options they were forced to ice last season. Bob had a save percentage of .913 last season, with a goals against average of 2.58, but when the Blue Jackets needed him most, he was even better. In 13 March games, as they were fighting to make the playoffs, Bobrovsky had a save percentage of .940, and in the postseason, as he went 4-0 against the Lightning before falling to the Bruins, it was at .925.
This is a crude way to quantify improvement, but going by goals saved above average, if one took last season’s Panthers and replaced 69 starts of Luongo/Reimer with 61 Bobrovsky starts from 2018–19, the Panthers would have improved from a goal differential of -13 to +14.93. That upgrade comes, however, at a tremendous cost:
I’m not even sure the Panthers themselves can make the case that Bobrovsky is the second-best goalie in the league—even top-five is a stretch. But in spending big to fill a dire need, the Panthers have quickly accelerated themselves back into potential playoff contention—where they haven’t been since a cameo in 2016. As long as Bobrovsky—entering his age-31 season—doesn’t fall into too steep a decline as the contract goes on, the Panthers look vastly improved while still maintaining some room to play around with their roster. According to Spotrac, they have $7 million left in cap space after the Bobrovsky deal—which they’ll need to get a few more forwards. And after the 2019–20 season, with the $9 million combined contracts of Mike Hoffman and Evgeny Dadonov expiring, they’ll have the flexibility to either lock up those scorers or try to upgrade them, if they regress in 2019–20.
The Panthers showed they meant business when they snatched Joel Quenneville in April to coach up their impressive core of young skaters, and with the eye-catching signing of the top goalie on the market, they’re forcing everyone to actually pay attention to them. The Panthers have a fantastic offense led by Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, as well as a solid defense led by Aaron Ekblad. With a more-than-passable goaltender now inserted into the mix, there’s now a second hockey team in Florida worth watching.