Bobrovsky attempting to end Flyers’ Calder futility

by David Strehle
NHLHS Philadelphia Flyers Correspondent

There have been many fantastic first-year players to wear the Orange-and-Black throughout the storied history of the Philadelphia Flyers franchise, but none has ever taken home the Calder Trophy as the National Hockey League’s rookie-of-the-year.

It’s not like the Flyers haven’t had any freshmen deserving of the honor, they just seemed to lost out for one reason or another.

The History

In 1972-73, left winger Bill Barber scored 30 goals and 64 points, but lost out to New York Ranger Steve Vickers.  Vickers also tallied 30 times and had 53 points, but many believed that playing in the media hub of the Big Apple was what gave him the nod over Barber.

Goaltender Pete Peeters posted an amazing 29-5-5 record during the infamous 1979-80 campaign in which the team went 35 games without a loss, but just so happened to be in the same rookie class as future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Raymond Bourque, who won the Calder.

Center Dave Poulin scored 31 goals and racked up 76 points during the 1983-84 season, but the award instead went to 18-year-old Buffalo Sabres’ netminder Tom Barrasso.  Fresh out of high school, Barrasso had a 26-12-3 mark for the Sabres.

Goaltender Ron Hextall burst onto the NHL scene in the 1986-87 campaign, with his never before seen puck-handling abilities and combative style.  ”Hexy” had a 37-21-6 record, but the award went to Los Angeles Kings sniper Luc Robitaille, who scored 45 goals and 84 points.

In 1992-93 Eric Lindros, a much-ballyhooed phenom, scored 41 goals and 75 points – but the Calder rightfully went to Teemu Selanne of the Winnipeg Jets.  The “Finnish Flash” had a sensational season, setting league records with 76 goals and 132 points.

The very next season, right winger Mikael Renberg played on the “Legion of Doom” Line with Lindros and John LeClair and notched 38 goals and 82 points.  But Philadelphia’s division-rival New Jersey Devils iced a goaltender named Martin Brodeur, who posted a 27-11-8 mark during the 1993-94 season.

Noticing a pattern?  With the exception of Vickers, the player beating out the young Flyers’ Calder candidate is either already enshrined in the Hockey Hall-of-Fame, worthy of inclusion (Barrasso, who was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall-of-Fame in 2009), or will be upon their retirement.

Enter “Bob”

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

At this season’s All-Star break, the Flyers have another worthy candidate, as goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is right in the thick of the Calder Trophy hunt.  With a 21-6-3 record, a 2.42 goals-against average, and .920 save percentage, the 22-year-old Russian rookie netminder has to be considered one of the favorites to win the award.

Signed by Philadelphia to a three-year contract that will pay him $1.75 million annually in May of 2010, Bobrovsky had been on the Flyers’ radar for some time.

Sergei is a kid that we knew about in his draft year“, said GM Paul Holmgren.  ”It came up last year, the opportunity to maybe sign him as a free agent.  One of our scouts looks at the KHL [Kontinental Hockey League] exclusively.  Sergei was stuck for the last couple of years playing for a not very good team, but his goals-against was good, his save percentage was good.  We watched some tape on him and decided to take the plunge.”

“Bob” took full advantage of incumbent Michael Leighton’s pre-season back injury in taking over the reigns as the club’s number one goalie to open the season.  He gained notoriety by beating the Penguins on opening night in Pittsburgh in the inaugural game at CONSOL Energy Center.  He proceeded to post a 5-2-0 record in October, but bigger things were yet to come.

Bobrovsky was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for November, as he registered a 7-1-2 mark, with a 2.03 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.  He started a stretch of 12 consecutive games as head coach Peter Laviolette stuck with his hot hand.

As the calendar flipped to December, the landscape of the crease area began to change in the City of Brotherly Love.  The level of Bobrovsky’s play dropped off a bit, and Laviolette went with backup Brian Boucher.  Boucher played very well and the Flyers were winning, so the coach went with the status quo.

Bobrovsky’s December was average, at best, as he was only able to post a 3-3-1 record.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

After watching Boucher win the first three contests of January, Bobrovsky didn’t get back into game action until 1-11-11 in a road game against the Buffalo Sabres,  and things didn’t get off to a good start that night.

The Flyers came out flat-footed and Buffalo took full advantage.  They outshot Philadelphia 12-3 in the first nine minutes of the game and jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead .  But Bobrovsky got stronger as the night went along, and he wouldn’t allow another goal.  He outdueled Ryan Miller, stopping 38 of 40 Sabres’ shots in gaining the 5-2 victory.

That game seemed to be a turning point for Bobrovsky.  Including the Buffalo game, he has won his last six starts and has not yielded more than two goals in any one of them.  The streak also contains victories over the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, and Montreal Canadiens.

The rookie has looked very confident in net lately.  “The confidence is the most important thing for me so I can calm down and play to the best of my abilities and keep winning”, Bobrovsky said after Tuesday night’s win over Montreal.

When asked what the difference has been between the time of his slump in December and his hot play of late, Bobrovsky said he really didn’t know.  “I don’t have an explanation for my let down.  I don’t really know what happened for me to start playing better again.  I came out and played every game the same way.”

Whatever brought about the change, chances are it stems from his work with goaltending coach Jeff Reese.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Over the course of his 6-0-0 run in January, Bobrovsky’s goals-against average is a miniscule 1.83, and a .940 save percentage.

He may just be on pace to become the first Flyers Calder Trophy winner.

The Competition

His biggest competition over the last 30 games of the year will likely come from forwards Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks and Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, with such dark horses as Taylor Hall of the Edmonton Oilers, Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers, and Buffalo’s Tyler Ennis.

The challenges from his fellow goaltenders will come from Chicago’s Corey Crawford and Washington’s Michal Neuvirth.

Barring any kind of move by the Flyers to acquire a veteran netminder for the stretch run, Bobrovsky should get the bulk of work in the final 30 games of the regular season.  And that should do nothing but help his chances to win the Calder Trophy.

The Irony

The irony of it all is that Philadelphia has not had the most-endearing relationship with Russians over the years.

Beginning with Bobby Clarke’s slash that broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle in the ’72 Canada vs. Russia Summit Series; continuing with the ’76 Soviet Red Army game at the Spectrum in which the Red Army players left the ice surface because of the rough play of the Flyers; and the stubbornness of the Philly brass to ice Russian players, the mix has not been a good one.

Until this season, that is, and it all began with the signing of Bobrovsky.

Add in Clarke’s refusal to acknowledge the crease area when building his Flyer teams over his long tenure as the club’s GM, and Bobrovsky appears to be the answer to quite a few Philly failures.

And with the good probability that the Flyers’ Calder drought could quickly become a thing of the past, so too could Philadelphia’s 36-year stretch of not winning the Stanley Cup.  All in the same season.

If so, it could be in large part due to the man they call “Bob”.

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If you have any comments or questions, you can email the author at dstrehle@nhlhotstove.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter - @PhilaDAVEia.