You probably don’t remember Dan O’Toole and Jay Onrait. They were the Canadian SportsCentre guys (yes, the e goes there up north) that Fox Sports brought in to host its competitor to SportsCenter (with the e where it belongs down here) when FS1 launched. You don’t remember the former, because no one watched it, which also means you forgot that it also contained Andy Roddick giving his football thoughts, which believe me, was a whole thing.
BUT THAT’S NOT WHY YOU CALLED.
Anyway, O’Toole and Onrait made their reputations in Canada on being pretty damn funny, in ways that Fox never understood and never tried to replicate. One of their most famous bits was Onrait’s need to pronounce “Bobrovsky” as if he were in a cop movie where “Bobrovsky” was the rogue detective and he was the infuriated chief. Well, through three weeks of the NHL season, Sergei Bobrovsky is back to being “YOU’RE OFF THE CASE, BOBROVSKY!” worthy.
Through 11 games this season, the Florida Panthers have yet to lose in regulation, with a 10-0-1 record. It’s the best in the NHL, three points clear of anyone else. Their last game was a 5-2 mauling of the Carolina Panthers, themselves off to an undefeated start at the time, where the Cats were up 4-0 after the first period. It ended with a small fracas between Anthony Duclair and Tony DeAngelo. Can’t imagine why DeAngelo went after Duclair. Can you?
The leading reason the Panthers are atop the NHL at this admittedly meaningless point in the season is Bobrovsky. While he is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, his signing two years ago in Florida smacked of GM Dale Tallon’s compulsion to acquire goalies for a ton of money (Khabibulin, Huet, Luongo, now Bobrovsky, to name a few) only to watch them turn to darkening spinach afterwards. Bob was coming off an OK year in Columbus when he snowbirded for south Florida, and his first two years in Sunrise were underwhelming, to be kind. As he was crushing the team’s salary cap with his $11 million check, nightmares were already brewing of how the Panthers were going to work around it for the next seven years.
He’d ceded time last year to Chris Driedger and Spencer Knight, with all three goalies making playoff appearances. There’s still a wide swath of Panthers observers (if they constitute a swath) who’d like to see, and highly suspect, that Knight will still take the starter’s job before too long.
Perhaps splitting starts is the rhythm that Bobrovsky needs, because he’s been the league’s best goalie. Not only does he have a league-best .948 save percentage, but he’s lapping the field when it comes to goals saved above expected, according to MoneyPuck.com, with 14.4 — nearly five goals better than the second-placed goalie (Freddie Andersen... it’s going to happen to you again, Carolina). And that’s just in seven starts. When it comes to per-game stats, he’s doubling the next best starter in goals saved above expected per 60 minutes.
The Panthers have needed this sort of performance because though they’re not a bad defensive team, they aren’t a particularly good one either. While they’re sixth in the league in the number of attempts they give up per 60 minutes, per NaturalStatTrick.com, they’re 21st in expected goals against per 60. They might not give up a lot of attempts, but the ones they do are more often prime chances than they’d like.
Bobrovsky isn’t the only reason the Cats are here, though. The aforementioned Duclair is NBA Jam on fire at the moment, shooting 36 percent with eight goals. Duclair has flashed this sort of play before, with a 23-goal season in Ottawa three seasons ago and some pretty glossy analytic seasons as well. He’s not going to score the 60 goals he’s on pace for this season, but after nine years and six teams, Duclair — at 26 — might finally be cemented as the top-six winger he was always billed to be. Jesus, he’s only 26?!
Of course, playing with Sasha Barkov never hurt anyone, as that’s where Duclair has found himself. Barkov has 12 points in 10 games, and Duclair’s play has allowed the Panthers to put Jonathan Huberdeau to balance out the scoring on another line.
How good the Panthers are is harder to gauge. Bobrovsky being at Vezina-level for a whole season will cure a lot of ills. But if he drops off, their defensive deficiencies could be a problem. That’s what happens when you’re playing Radko Gudas and Gustav Forsling in your top four. They can score with anyone, given the three lines of depth they sport. They’re also not the most sympathetic teams to root for, given their head-in-the-sand approach to letting Joel Quenneville coach one more game after the report came out and his role in the Kyle Beach case was revealed. He is gone now, replaced by assistant Andrew Brunette. If Brunette doesn’t lose, it’ll be hard to bring anyone to bust him back down to assistant. This is still a playoff team at a canter, but they’ll have to tune up their defense to be a Cup contender. Unless...
You’re the top cop on the force, Bobrovsky!