Columbus Blue Jackets: Can Bobrovsky End Line of Unsuccessful Goaltenders?
You'll have to forgive the Columbus Blue Jackets for brandishing a more cautious brand of optimism when it comes to goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
Playoff runs and 45-win seasons don't occur during the offseason. They're just manufactured there. Then the players have to go out on the ice and earn their place. For the Jackets to have success in 2014, Bobrovsky will need to duplicate his 2013 Vezina-winning season.
And the definition of success is changing in Columbus.
The presence of John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen have assured that just making the playoffs isn't good enough anymore. No, they want to take deep runs and have done an outstanding job of adding proven and gutsy winners to a once carelessly constructed lineup.
Columbus should be able to rest easy. They should be able to feel comfortable counting on Bobrovsky and his tremendous capabilities. If not for the ghosts of "franchise" goaltenders gone by, that is.
The Jackets have been here before. They've sat at the table during press conferences and spoken about how the future of the franchise is in great hands with goaltender X or Y, only to watch X or Y collapse during the regular season.
X was Pascal Leclaire. Y was Steve Mason.
Leclaire was the eighth overall selection in 2001. The first goaltender taken in the draft, the Jackets clearly believed they were landing a franchise-caliber player—something that, in hindsight, not many teams managed to do in '01.
He came into his own during the 2007-08 season while playing inside of coach Ken Hitchcock's goaltender-friendly system. His 2.25 GAA and strong showing that year lead ex-general manager Scott Howson to sign him to a three-year extension.
Howson told the Associated Press (h/t ESPN) that Leclaire "is an important part of our team and we think he will continue to improve and play a significant role in helping us reach our goals."
Injury problems and inconsistency saw Leclaire replaced during his first year as "franchise goaltender." Steve Mason was the man who stepped into the starting role, leading Columbus to the playoffs and winning the Calder Trophy on the back of an outstanding first half of the season.
The Jackets had a new backbone in net and went into the 2009-10 season with high hopes and a desire to build on the franchise's first-ever trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Mason would never again resemble a starting-quality NHL netminder for Columbus. He'd bottom out entirely in 2012, posting a sub-.900 save percentage while allowing an average of nearly three goals a game for the third season in a row.
Needing a stopgap (read: a goaltender who at least would give the Jackets a prayer of winning a 2-1 hockey game), the Jackets called on the Philadelphia Flyers and poached Bobrovsky after the team had signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a (now defunct) big-money, massive-term deal.
The change of scenery revitalized Bobrovsky, who attacked the opportunity to be a starter in the NHL. He spearheaded a surprising run at the playoffs in 2013, and if the season had been a few games longer it's likely that the Jackets would have made the dance.
So now Columbus finds itself in a familiar situation.
After inking the fresh Vezina Trophy recipient to a two-year extension, the team has talked about how their team is in great hands moving forward. They have an outstanding young netminder in place, and all appears well for the 2014 season.
It's easy to see where any hesitation from the fanbase would come from, but the buzz surrounding Bobrovsky is different.
The excitement surrounding Bob is different. The feeling surrounding the team is different. The aura has changed, and so have expectations.
Between the Marian Gaborik trade and the Nathan Horton signing and the re-signing of Bobrovsky, suddenly the Blue Jackets have real positive momentum going forward. The stick in the spokes would usually turn out to be the goaltender.
In seasons gone by it'd be a nearly bankable fact. As sure as the Detroit Red Wings grabbing a great player late in the draft and the New York Rangers signing a massive deal with a free agent, the Jackets would count on the wrong guy in net and end up in the basement for their faith.
Not this time around, though. Not with Bobrovsky. The statistical data is there: 2.00 GAA, .932 save percentage and four shutouts through 38 games played. But it's the empirical data that really shines through.
Bobrovsky's run just feels different. It looks different. His play doesn't feel like a flash in the pan. With Mason and Leclaire before him, there was always this impending feeling of doom surrounding the net in Columbus.
Fans would wince with nearly every shot on goal, even the 60-footers that weren't screened. Even the long bombs from 90 feet out would cause onlookers to glance away for fear of seeing the red light go off.
Bobrovsky is in town for two more years at least, and while it'll take awhile to get used to, there's no reason to fear a drop-off in play similar to what has happened before. The Jackets are a franchise on the rise, and Bobrovsky is the jet backpack responsible for the sudden propulsion.
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