How the Panthers make one of the NHL’s best goalie tandems work

    Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.

Sergei Bobrovsky is feeling philosophical.

The Florida Panthers goaltender is trying to describe what’s made him and rookie Spencer Knight so formidable together sharing Florida’s crease this season. But how to articulate the unique alliance of a goalie tandem?

Teams match players and hope for the best. Spend over a decade in the NHL like Bobrovsky has, and you churn through a fair share of partners. What he’s learned about the best unions is that they strike a fine balance between support and space.

“[Spencer and I] have a good relationship. But also, each of us has our own journey,” Bobrovsky told ESPN recently. “We serve the team. We work, we compete and we try to complement the team with the best goaltending. And then each of us has their own life, their own destiny. So you build in that and try to be your own kind of successful every day.”

Hey, whatever works. And there’s no arguing with the Panthers’ results.

Florida opened its season at 10-0-1, the last NHL team without a regulation loss. Bobrovsky was 6-0-0 in that stretch, with a .948 save percentage and 1.72 goals-against average. Knight was right behind him at 4-0-1, .918 and 2.51, respectively.

It hasn’t always been the norm to lean so heavily — and evenly — on two goaltenders. But the league has trended that way more recently, and the Panthers are an example of why goalie tandems can be so effective.

In 2010-11, a team’s No. 1 goalie averaged 54 starts per season. By 2018-19, that number was down to 50.

From 2000-01 to 2015-16, 23 goalies started 70 or more games 43 times. Only one goalie — Cam Talbot — has made 70 or more starts in the four full 82-game seasons since 2016-17.

Managing regular-season starts may also correlate with playoff success. In the last five 82-game seasons, the Stanley Cup winner’s top goaltender averaged 51 starts.

Prior to arriving in Florida, Bobrovsky was the undisputed No. 1 goalie in Columbus for seven seasons. He clocked 60-plus starts in three consecutive seasons from 2016-17 to 2018-19, playing the second-most games in the league (behind Frederik Andersen) while earning the most wins (115).

That hard work manifested in individual success for Bobrovsky when he won the Vezina Trophy in 2012 (after making 58 regular-season starts) and again in 2017.

Now he’s splitting time with Knight, the Panthers’ 20-year-old phenom whom they drafted 13th overall in 2019. While the NHL itself is new to Knight, he’s bonded quickly with Bobrovsky through Florida’s hot start.

“The dynamic between a goalie and a goalie partner is huge,” Knight said. “We both bounce ideas off each other and talk after the games, toss out how the game went. You just have to be in it together, right? I want him to succeed as much as I want myself to succeed. Whoever is playing in net is the one who can put the team in the best spot to win.”

For a long time, that responsibility fell on Bobrovsky’s shoulders alone. These days, the starts in Florida are being divvied up. All Bobrovsky can do is shrug at the change.

“It is what it is. I can’t control those things,” he said. “The club decides how much I’m going to play. I don’t feel the competition [with Knight]. I have my own mind. I compete with myself. But when you’re against the guy at the other end [in practice] where he’s competing too, that kind of gives you that extra edge. But it’s the coaches deciding who’s playing. My job is to be prepared when I hear my name.”

Moving past the past

Every relationship faces adversity. The strongest ones can survive — and even thrive — after it.

Bobrovsky had a tumultuous end in Columbus. He began telling Blue Jackets’ management during the 2017-18 season that he wasn’t planning to sign an extension. The relationship Bobrovsky had with then-head coach John Tortorella could be strained, and it wasn’t helped by Bobrovsky being suspended by the team in January 2019 for leaving the bench to shower after being pulled. So Bobrovsky became a free agent, and on July 1, 2019, signed a seven-year, $70 million contract with the Panthers. It was meant to signal a fresh start, but Bobrovsky’s start in South Florida was anything but sunny.

Expectations were understandably high given the investment Florida made in a 30-year-old netminder, and Bobrovsky underwhelmed with a 23-19-6 record, .900 save percentage and 3.23 goals-against average before COVID-19 halted the regular season in March 2020.

Bobrovsky started all four qualifying round games for Florida in the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoff tournament that August, and the Panthers fell to the New York Islanders 3-1 in that series.

When the NHL returned for a pandemic-shortened 56-game slate in 2020-21, Bobrovsky split the campaign mostly with Chris Driedger. And then came Knight.

Fresh from his sophomore season at Boston College, Knight made his NHL debut on April 20, 2020. By May, he’d become the youngest goalie in NHL history to start his career 4-0-0.

Along the way, Knight took in everything he could from Bobrovsky.

“Whether he’s doing well or he’s not playing as well as he wants, he’s always engaged and at the same focus level all the time,” Knight said. “That’s really what I almost idolize about him. Everything he does has a purpose. And he’s constantly looking to better himself.”

When Florida opened its first-round playoff series against Tampa, it was with Bobrovsky in net — until he lost Game 1. Then-coach Joel Quenneville replaced Bobrovsky with Driedger in Game 2, and then called on Bobrovsky to come off the bench and save Florida in Game 3. Bobrovsky started Game 4 and was pulled in the second period, not to return again in that series.

Bobrovsky didn’t even dress for Game 5. It was Knight who got the start, backed up by Driedger. Knight won his postseason debut with a 36-save performance in the 4-1 victory. Knight started again in Game 6, but the Panthers were shut out 4-0 to end their playoff run.

Whatever gains Knight had made in his relationship with Bobrovsky might have soured there. Knight credits Bobrovsky for why things didn’t go south.

“It’s tough to watch and I get that. I feel for that,” Knight said. “But he was very positive with me. Even before that, he’s always been positive and he’s never down and he’s always engaged. And that’s a testament to his character and him as a professional athlete.”

Bobrovsky took a lot of heat for how that postseason unfolded. He decided to delete Instagram over the summer, to keep his work and home life separate. In Bobrovsky’s mind, there’s no point in dwelling on what was. Not when Florida’s present outlook is so bright.

“Last year is gone,” he said simply. “Now, everybody’s contributing to success and trying to be better and pushing each other and striving to be better. It’s just one day at a time, one game at a time, trying to build.”

How he and Knight work together is also evolving. Being in a true tandem requires collaborative preparation, but Bobrovsky hardly expects to always reach the same conclusions.

“We talk about hockey here and there, we talk about elements,” Bobrovsky said. “But he has his own view on the game, I have my own view of the game. There are certain situations that we can discuss. It’s not like you’re hiding your own secrets; we are pretty open. Ultimately, it’s just: Go out in the game and complement and support one another to help the team find a win.”

Protecting the house — and the body

Braden Holtby knows about carrying a team.

Since 2014-15, Holtby has started more games (388) and recorded more wins (231) than any NHL goaltender. Most of those came with the Washington Capitals.

Holtby won the Vezina in 2016, the same season he tied Martin Brodeur for most wins by a goalie in a single season. In 2017, Holtby won the William M. Jennings Trophy as part of a Capitals team that allowed the fewest goals against in the NHL (2.16 per game). In 2018, Holtby backstopped the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

So, yes. Holtby is used to being The Guy. He was for nearly a decade — until last season in Vancouver, when he primarily backed up Thatcher Demko.

That marriage ultimately didn’t last, and Holtby had the second season of his deal bought out by the Canucks. He’s since signed a one-year contract in Dallas, to be a starter once again.

Managing that role as a 34-year-old is different for Holtby than it was at 26. And what the 20-somethings are doing now to prepare is a whole new world to him as well.

“If you were to see the amount of work I put into getting my body going now as compared to my first few years, it’s a big contrast,” Holtby said, laughing. “But now with a lot of young goalies coming up, their attention to their body and the knowledge [they have] and the work they put in to make sure their body lasts is incredible. You’ll probably see an increase in those guys playing a lot of games just because of the knowledge to get their body adapting to the new style of goaltending.”

The physical toll his position takes is why Holtby believes a tandem is more appealing — and sometimes necessary — for teams now. And another Cup-winning goaltender, Jonathan Quick, may have something to do with it.

Quick is credited with popularizing a technique called Reverse Vertical Horizontal (RVH) during the Los Angeles Kings’ Cup run in 2012. It’s a move that evolved from the more commonly used VH, or vertical horizontal.

In the VH technique, a goalie’s short-side pad seals the post vertically, while the back leg drops sealing the ice horizontally. The RVH is its opposite, so the short-side leg is tightly sealed on the ice horizontally, and the back leg is up as a pivot.

After seeing Quick have success with it, the RVH quickly caught on, particularly with up-and-coming goalies. But while it can have tactical advantages, the RVH may also be causing a spike in goalie tandems.

“You don’t see as many guys playing a lot of games, [and people] say it’s because of the playoff thing,” Holtby said. “But ever since the RVH has become a popular move, guys’ hips and bodies just can’t really withstand the motion. It’s similar to pitchers in baseball. You’re putting your body in a position it’s not supposed to be so I think that’s a big reason why.”

Never mind just the physical toll of goaltending. There’s a mental price to pay as well.

Cam Talbot didn’t expect to play all but 10 regular season games for the Edmonton Oilers in 2016-17. It just happened that way. And what he remembers most about the experience now isn’t related to the impact on his body.

“Goaltending, it’s stressful,” Talbot said. “Mentally, sometimes you just need to take a step back and just sit on the bench [as a backup] and joke with the guys for a night. It’s not easy if you don’t have the right mentality for it; that can be tough and it was definitely a grind. But at the same time, everyone wants to be that go-to guy. For the better part of two seasons, I was that guy in Edmonton and I loved every minute of it.”

Talbot started all 13 playoff games for Edmonton after that 72-start regular season, going 7-6-0 with a .924 save percentage and 2.48 goals-against average.

The following season he made 67 starts, dipping to 31-31-3 with a .908 save percentage and 3.02 goals-against average. Talbot’s numbers kept dropping into 2018-19, and he was 10-15-3 when Edmonton traded him to Philadelphia for 25-year-old netminder Anthony Stolarz.

That decline wasn’t entirely surprising to Talbot, nor is the trend around the league towards teams taking a more mindful approach to how they ride goaltenders.

“You can see the last, four, five, six years, every team that’s gone deep in the playoffs has had that kind of 1A-1B or tandem situation,” he said. “Guys that play near 70 games a season, once it comes to playoff time, it [all just] wears on the body, it wears on the mind and sometimes you’re just not as fresh. There’s a big difference between playing 55 and 70. It’s an extra day off a week basically, where you just get to kind of sit back and relax. If you’ve got two guys that you’re comfortable with every night, there’s no reason to really wear out one guy.”

Workload management

Not every great player can become a good coach. Bill Ranford is one who did.

In 15 seasons between the pipes, Ranford played 647 games and won two Stanley Cups in Edmonton, while internationally backstopping Canada to both a Canada Cup and World Championship title. He’s also the only goalie in history to be named MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs, World Championships and at the World Cup.

Ranford transitioned into coaching after his career was done, joining the Kings’ staff in 2006. He’s been their goalie coach ever since, serving a pivotal role in grooming Quick towards two Cups in 2012 and 2014.

A lot has changed about goaltending since Ranford played, and even since the Kings won their last title. He said back in the day, guys “didn’t know any better” than to start as many games as possible. Now, there’s more finesse to those decisions.

“With the whole of goaltending, your first to fourth goalie has gotten so much stronger,” Ranford said. “So there’s a confidence that you can play your number two or your 1B. And analytics has come into play, where there’s a lot of teams relying on that information about when to use a second goalie. And then just realizing the mental and physical toll that it takes on the body for teams that are competitive, year after year.”

Ranford sees the goalie tandem as a means in part of alleviating some pressure on a team’s No. 1 early in the season. But he also knows firsthand that goalies can be temperamental, tied to a routine and habits that require support.

“I think if you’re looking at the past, the ratio of three [starts] to one [is ideal],” Ranford said of balancing players. “But, if you’ve got a workhorse of a goalie that likes to play, they don’t like to sit too long. But you also have to have your No. 2 guy ready to play and if they go sitting too long, it’s really tough for them to be comfortable in their own skin when they get into the game and feel confident. So it’s something that you definitely have to be conscious about.”

Keeping the long-term goal in mind

Early success doesn’t mean much in the spring. The idea is to keep it going. Florida believes it has the goaltending duo to do that.

Case in point: When Bobrovsky suffered an upper-body injury at the start of November, the Panthers weren’t worried they’d miss a beat. Knight would still be there.

It was that same one-for-all attitude the team took when Quenneville resigned on Oct. 28, after his role in the Chicago Blackhawks’ mishandling of sexual assault allegations by Kyle Beach against former video coach Brad Aldrich was revealed. The Panthers haven’t strayed from their course under new coach Andrew Brunette; if anything, the bonds have grown stronger.

“You see guys pulling the rope and no one’s getting down,” Knight said. “No one’s yelling at each other; it’s always positive. There’s a lot going on in the world but just focus on this team, these guys in the room. That’s most important. That’s honestly what drives a lot of success on the ice, is just how your group and your teammates treat each other.”

After the disappointment of last season’s end, Bobrovsky has resolved to just take this season game by game. No need for added pressure. No reason to dwell. There’s a here and now on which to focus, and Bobrovsky is determined not to miss it.

“I’ve been here [in the NHL] a lot of years,” he said. “In the big picture, to really do the most in a season, you have to take one moment after another. You can’t have time off. You have to work, you have to develop yourself, your body, your mind and improve your game. The competition is so tight, the game is so tight. That’s the NHL.”

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