I picture Sergei Bobrovsky sitting at a dimly lit bar table surrounded by attractive women as the deep voice of a narrator cuts in. “He’s never played the puck behind the net” “He only knows two words in English and one of them is Bob” “He is the most interesting goalie in the National Hockey League”
It can’t be denied that Bobrovsky’s potential is limitless. The 22-year-old raw ball of flexibility and athleticism simply known as “Bob” around Philadelphia is the stuff goaltending coaches drool over. At the same time though, in the definition of potential, there is no guarantees that the possibilities will be reached. Goaltenders with all the potential in the world seem to be a dime a dozen in the modern NHL.
The first time I saw Bobrovsky not doing splits across the mouth of the net, it was a video of him being interviewed by a Santa in between periods of a Flyers game around the Holidays. Smile wide across his face, he repeated the word “Bob” over and over again as the Santa asked how he liked Philadelphia and about his jumping rope before games. It was comical, a quirky foreigner who didn’t understand English and possibly even the concept of Santa Claus.
But now this once comical non understanding of the English language seems to be holding back Bob’s development on the games biggest stage. When there is a hard forecheck or a puck careening around the boards, players need all the help they can get to start a breakout or make a play, especially from the watchful eye and clear communication of their goaltender. Right now, that’s just another language that Bobrovsky is struggling to speak.
“There are communication difficulties,” Explained Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen “It’s his first time here so he’s going to take time to get better. He has to feel comfortable to go behind the net and stop the puck. That’s the first thing. Then it comes down to talking, what you’re going to do with the puck.
“It’s not easy and it’s going to take time. We all understand that.”
Stopping the puck behind the net may seem like a trivial skill learned at the youth level. But for even the most talented goaltender, if you have never ventured into that trapezoid black hole behind the net, it doesn’t matter how good you are at making saves. You are a fish out of water.
“From what I heard, he hadn’t come out of the net once over in Russia,” defenseman Sean O’Donnell said referencing Bobrovsky’s three years of play in the KHL. “I think any one of us, if we tried to pick up something new at this level, would have a bit of a learning curve.”
Now for whatever reason, whether it be the European game or Bobrovsky’s former Russian goaltending coaches, the Flyers goalie is an all too real version of the fictional Cleveland Indians catcher Rube Baker from Major League II who couldn’t throw the ball back to the pitcher. A promising rookie who struggles to grasp one of the fundamental tasks of his position regardless of how trivial it seems.
“It’s gonna make it harder for us to make a good first pass and if you look at the good goalies who can stop the puck behind the net, it’s gonna help the defense a lot – more than you think,” Timonen said. “There’s so many teams coming with a lot of speed, if the puck goes around, they can create their forechecking and turnovers and everything. But if you’re able to stop the puck behind the net and maybe break out right away. It’s a simple thing but it makes a huge difference.”
With all the questions and what seems to be lack of confidence in Bobrovsky’s ability to handle the puck, the youngster is showing his willingness to do as much as he can with little experience behind the net. The only issue there is that one goal games in the third period aren’t usually the best time to try new things. This showed when Bobrovsky recently gave the puck away behind his own net to an Islanders player which turned into a goal to tie the game with 27 seconds left to play.
“He’s learning, on the fly, in the best league in the world,” Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese explained. “The players are so fast here, they’re in on you in a hurry. In the minors, it’s a little bit slower. He would have had a chance to learn better there. Personally, I think he’s done an admirable job.”
He’s got the talent, and seems to have the willingness to learn from scratch. From here where Bobrovsky goes is essentially up to him.
Will he be the Flyers next Ron Hextall, or just another Euro band-aid for the Philadelphia’s goaltending issues like Roman Cechmánek? Regardless of his troubles, Bob seems to understand the language of making saves as well as any other goalie in the league which is the best start he could have.