His teammates know him simply as "Bob," but what 24-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky has accomplished in his first season with the Blue Jackets is worthy of a much longer title.
Cast off by the Philadelphia Flyers in favor of a more expensive and outspoken option named Ilya Bryzgalov, former Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson was able to finalize a trade for Bobrovsky at the June 2012 NHL draft, giving up only draft picks in return. At the time, the deal was not widely praised due to Bobrovsky coming off a down year, but some seemed to quickly forget a 28-win rookie season and a playoff appearance with the Flyers in 2010-11 that him in the Calder Trophy conversation.
The following summer, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren handed Bryzgalov a nine-year contract which undoubtedly meant limited playing time for Bobrovsky going forward. He went from 54 games played in his rookie season to just 29 in the next, helping pave the way for his trade to Columbus.
Bobrovsky opted to join SKA in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) during the NHL lockout, and it proved to be a good decision that benefited both the player and the Blue Jackets. In 24 starts for SKA, Bobrovsky went 18-3-2 with a 1.94 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage - numbers that deservedly attracted some eyeballs.
But would that success translate to the NHL? That's what everyone wanted to know, especially concerning the Blue Jackets who were looking for a strong, young goaltender to help push incumbent Steve Mason.
After a bit of a slow start, Bobrovsky put the Blue Jackets on his back during their playoff run. He went 21-11-6 in 38 appearances with a 2.00 goals-against average and .932 save percentage, the latter of which was second-best in the NHL to Ottawa's Craig Anderson, who played 14 fewer games.
Though the Blue Jackets came up just short in their bid for the postseason, Bobrovsky is widely considered to be a strong contender for the Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the league's best goaltender as voted on by NHL general managers.
A non-playoff goalie is not traditionally a front-runner for the Vezina, but many around the sport believe Bobrovsky's is a unique case. He started all but one of the games in Columbus' 19-5-4 run to close out the regular season.
"I haven’t seen a player singlehandedly propel his team north quite like 'Goalie Bob,'" said Jeff Marek, host on Rogers Sportsnet (Canada) and a well-respected voice in the sport. "He’s the hardest worker on the team, has improved his game stopping pucks off the rush, in a scramble and by the posts (helps having an elite level goalie coach like Ian Clark but Bob’s a sponge for info, always looking to improve his game). And on a team that has to grind out every goal (and man, that’s a tough way to play) Bobrovsky has kept the Jackets in games they probably shouldn’t have been in.
"There’s an old saying in hockey that goes like this – if you have the goalie it’s 70 percent of your team, if you don’t it’s 100 percent. The Blue Jackets have the goalie, and for my money, there’s been nobody more valuable to his team."
Among those considered to be in the Vezina running along with Bobrovsky include Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks and Anderson.
The argument against Anderson is the drastically lower number of games played (due to injury) compared to his counterparts, and according to Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo!'s Puck Daddy blog, a goaltender like Rask may have had more assistance in front him.
"Rask has been a bit more wire-to-wire, but Bobrovsky’s been the better goalie for the last two months," Wyshynski said. "The case for Bob is the case against Rask: there is no Zdeno Chara or Patrice Bergeron or Stanley Cup-winning lineup in Columbus. He faces fewer shots per game, and based on observable evidence, fewer quality chances.
"Bobrovsky, by comparison, has dramatically improved upon anything posted by Steve Mason or Curtis Sanford in the last two seasons, as well as on his own numbers with the Flyers. Either one is worthy, but there’s a case to be made for Bobrovsky for both the Vezina and, even more so, the Hart."
On a purely statistical basis, Bobrovsky is on par with or slightly ahead of those believed to be in Vezina contention:
Price: 21-13-4, 2.59, .905 (39 GP)
Niemi: 24-12-6, 2.16, .924
Rask: 19-9-5, 1.97, .930
Anderson: 12-9-2, 1.69, .941
Bobrovsky: 21-11-6, 2.00, .932
Elliotte Friedman, lead reporter for CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, told BlueJackets.com he would have given Bobrovsky his vote for the Hart Trophy (league MVP) had the Blue Jackets qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Friedman said he thinks Bobrovsky was the biggest contributor the Blue Jacket season this season, but also believes the young goaltender has been helped along by a fresh outlook and positive attitude around the dressing room in Columbus - something he said cannot be overstated.
"The Blue Jackets had every excuse a team could possibility want not to make the playoffs or not to have a good season, and they overcame that," Friedman said. "There's a greater character on the team with that growth than a lot of us realized. A lot of people in Philadelphia thought this guy had a really good chance to be special; he didn't get his chance there and he got his chance somewhere else and he grabbed it. He's gained a lot of respect and I don't think it will surprise anybody if he continues to be this good for quite some time.
"There's no question in my mind that the Blue Jackets have played better in front of him than other goalies in the last couple of years. And this team doesn't score a ton of goals, so he's going into every game knowing that his margin is very slim, and I think that if you're a guy that can win in those situations, you're a guy that a franchise can really lean on."
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