Are ya ready kids?
I can't hear you!
Ooooohhhh, who plays for the Flyers and stops pucks with ease?
Sponge Bob Square Pads!
Okay enough copyright infringement for one article. If you've been following the Philadelphia Flyers this preseason, there are plenty of things to be excited about. Typically, this organization makes their fans salivate by talking up their prospects during the summer. And just when we all start believing what we're hearing... BAM! A putrid play here, a terrible turnover there, a ghastly goal given up at just the worst time imaginable. Sometimes you wondered if they'd every draft a good defenseman or goalie again or if they were at least watching the same games you were.
This year is a little different. On May 6th, 2010, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren took the advice of former Phantoms goaltender and current goaltending scout Neil Little about an undrafted, 22 year-old Russian netminder by the name of Sergei Bobrovsky and signed him to an entry-level contract. Little had only seen video of Bobrovsky and that's solely where his recommendation came from, which is very odd in this day and age of pro sports scouting from what I gather. If you're a Flyers fan and Holmgren is a smart man, and I'd like to think he is, you'll be hearing that name (Bobrovsky) a whole lot in the next few years... If you're lucky, maybe even this year.
Bobrovsky started his pro career in the Russian Super League playing for a sub par Metallurg Novokuznetsk team who were then absorbed by the KHL in 2008. On that team, Bobrovsky had solid numbers. Through two years in the KHL, Bobrovsky's GAA was a combined 2.63, while his SV% was a combined .923. Those numbers seem relatively average, but when you consider that Sponge Bob's team wasn't even so-so in a lesser league than the NHL, they're pretty good.
Now to the present: since coming to America, Bobrovsky has been touted pretty heavily by the organization, not only because of his abilities, but also because of his determination and willingness to do whatever he can to make the big boy club. Bobrovsky's numbers aren't too shabby in the preseason either. In a recent Tim Panaccio article side bar on CSNPhilly.com, Panotch stated how the coaches think "Bob" is picking things up so quickly and absorbing information so well, he's like a "sponge". Therefore, since most of his teammates are already calling him "Bob" we might as well add "Sponge" in front of that and call him "Sponge Bob Square Pads" or "Sponge Bob" for short. Don't lie, you like that and you wish you had thought of it first even if you know it's a cheap laugh and a lame joke. Plus, you'd like Sponge Bob a whole lot more if you had seen him play in any of the preseason contests thus far.
Through 175 minutes and 56 seconds between the pipes for the Flyers, Sponge Bob has a jaw-dropping GAA of 1.71 and an eye-popping .952 SV%. Those are great numbers by any standards, even if most of those minutes have been against teams comprised of players who will largely either start and finish not only the year but their careers in the AHL (especially in the case of the Islanders game). So not only is the nickname somewhat funny in a nerdy way, but it's also practical and makes a lot of sense. Not because he's porous but because he soaks up information and cleans up messes, especially in front of his own net.
What I like most about Sponge Bob though, is his reaction time. If everyone remembers a year ago, Ray Emery was looking mighty good in net, especially when moving laterally in the crease and being able to see shots through lots of traffic as well as stopping pucks that were redirected. Early on, Emery looked like he could have been the real deal. Then he got hurt and diagnosed with AVN and well, so the story goes. Bobrovsky is much like Emery in that sense, just not as big, and much quicker to react. They both play a hybrid system, a blend of butterfly and the traditional stand-up style, but while Emery would go down easier as he was bigger and covered a lot of net, Bobrovsky tends to stay in a half-crouched stance until the absolute last moment before quickly falling to his knees and going into the butterfly position. The implementation of this system allows Bobrovsky to use his extremely quick reflexes to his advantage and if the preseason is any indication: if he can see the puck, he'll stop it. With the Flyers defense corps manning the fort, you gotta think that if Sponge Bob were backstopping them, he's going to be able to see a lot of those shots.
Bobrovsky has proven in the preseason and throughout camp that he is more than capable of being a good goalie at the NHL level and is as good an option as any of the other goalies vying for a roster spot. People will talk about how he needs time to adjust to the North American game and that they should leave him in the minors, and I completely agree... To a point.
With Michael Leighton out for at least a month with a bulging disc and Johan Backlund still rehabbing a surgically repaired hip, Boucher and Bobrovsky could very likely be the tandem we see coming out of tunnel and onto the ice to square off against the pesky Pittsburgh Penguins on October 7th at the Consol Energy Center. If I were behind a desk in the Flyers front office, I would probably go with Boosh and Sponge Bob going into the season unless Backlund is absolutely 100%. Bobrovsky should definitely start in the AHL if the latter is true because while there, he'll get to start every night just about and refine some of the finer points of the North American game like adjusting to the smaller rink and battling for space, as well as challenging shooters and generally getting used to the pace of the game. Plus, there's no use in rushing talent like this because I still think that Boucher would've done better if he had been given a fair shot at being the club's number one, but instead they stripped him of that title and thereby all of his confidence after a slow start following his unbelievable 2000 post-season run. Goalies are the biggest headcases in pro sports, probably even more finicky than pitchers are in baseball, and taking Boucher's confidence away and then trading him, really ruined his chances at ever building a strong mental aspect to his game that he could have added to the tools that made him look like he could've been pretty good.
Like I said before though, there are tons of things to be excited about when it comes to the 2010-2011 season for the Philadelphia Flyers. The progression or possible emergence of a true number one goaltender in Sergei "Sponge Bob" Bobrovsky could very well be the most intriguing chapter in this book that will be written over the next 83 games.
Also, what are your favorite goalie nicknames?
UPDATE: If anyone was wondering, out of 40 votes about 54% approved, 46 disapproved of Sponge Bob. I think that's enough of a sample personally. But so far Tim Panaccio and Sam Carchidi have used it as well, so we'll see if it sticks. I'll be writing more so hopefully you'll continue to read even if you didn't like the nickname.