With NHL training camps opening next month, the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves in unfamiliar territory. The expectations surrounding the team are equivalent to what they have been for the past few years. What is markedly different is that they are icing possibly the best team ever to don the union blue.
One year ago, the term “if it wasn’t for bad luck, they wouldn’t have any luck at all” reverberated throughout the halls of the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena. At times, due to injuries, they played with a hybrid NHL/AHL roster. Their league-leading 508 man games lost to injury have been chalked up to bad luck and are squarely in the rear-view mirror.
In recent years, the team has relied on goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to stand on his head, at times, in order to secure a win. His performance in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, going 21-11-6 with a 2.00 goals against average and a .932 save percentage, saw him win the 2013 Vezina Trophy as the league’s best netminder.
This is not to belittle the other players on the roster, but rather is indicative of a team that was still gaining respectability within the league as a place where good players wanted to be.
The culture within the organization has changed from one where they were hoping to do well, to one of expecting to win every time they charged out of the tunnel and took the ice. That blue-collar, workman-like attitude pervades the dressing room. In essence, it’s part-and-parcel of the fabric of the team.
This attitude is front-and-center with the team’s number one goaltender. His work ethic and training regimen are an example to the other players in the room. His focus on always getting better has forced Blue Jackets goaltender coach Ian Clark to send Bobrovsky home on optional practice days, ostensibly to get some rest. His play saw him named to his first NHL All Star Game in 2015.
“To me, number one… he’s worth it,” said defenseman Fedor Tyutin of Bobrovsky being an All-Star, “day in and day out, you know? I’ve been around quite a bit and seen some of the world’s best goalies. He’s just a competitor. He competes in every practice out there. I’m not even talking about games.”
Bobrovsky was not immune to the injury bug that sunk its teeth into the team last season. Twice he saw time on the Injured Reserve list; once with a broken finger and later with a groin injury. The latter injury forced him to pull-out of his first All Star Game. Despite the injuries, he focused his energy on getting healthy and regaining his form between the pipes.
“That’s what makes you a good player,” Tyutin said, “the combination of hard work and a really high ‘compete’ level. If you do those two things, you’re going to be involved in something good.”
That hard work resulted in Bobrovsky going 30-17-3 in 2014-15, with a 2.69 goals against average and a .918 save percentage.
The league caught a glimpse of what a healthy Blue Jackets team is capable of over the last 20 games of the 2014-15 season. With many of the injuries behind them, the team went 15-4 1, prompting more than one of their opponents to breathe a sigh of relief that Columbus wasn’t going to the playoffs.
With the talent that now surrounds Bobrovsky, especially on the forward lines, will he continue to get better and be considered one of the league’s “elite” goaltenders?
He is arguably one the NHL’s best netminders, ranking in the top 10 of most pundits lists. Even missing over 20 games last season with the aforementioned injuries he still is talked about as a game-changer. Oftentimes, this led to “The Hug” between Bobrovsky and Nick Foligno to celebrate a victory.
The Blue Jackets in 2014-15 scored an average of 2.77 goals per game, placing them in the top-half of the NHL. However, their goals against per game of 3.02 saw them ranked 25th. And while the team is loaded for bear offensively with the likes of Ryan Johansen, newly-named team captain Foligno and recently-acquired Brandon Saad, to name just two, they must be stingier in allowing other teams to find the back of the net.
If Bobrovsky stays healthy for the 2015-16 campaign, there is no reason to doubt that he could challenge the likes of Carey Price, Pekka Rinne or Henrik Lundqvist for his second Vezina Trophy.
And while the accolades are special, the at-times quiet Russian goalie goes about the business of being the best that he can be, believing to his core that the logo on the front of his jersey is more important than the name on the back. At times almost Zen-like as he prepares to play, he looks ahead only as far as the next game.
“I expect to play game-by-game and focus on each game, each night,” said Bobrovsky, “to give the opportunity to my teammates to win the game. My main focus is to help this team get better.”
He is caring, unselfish and oftentimes humble to a fault. He’ll deflect praise of his play to make mention of the fact that his teammates played a good game.
The 26-year-old Bobrovsky is just entering his prime and the Blue Jackets expect him to only get better. This was most evident when the team signed him to a four year, $29.7 million contract extension that keeps him in Columbus through the 2018-19 season.
Now entering his sixth year in the league, the undrafted netminder has a record of 125-71-24 in the NHL, with a 2.51 goals against average and a .918 save percentage. A healthy Bobrovsky, coupled with a healthy team, could vault the Blue Jackets up the standings once the puck drops on the new season.
With the expectations ratcheted to a level never-before seen in Columbus, the man between the pipes could backstop the Blue Jackets to another run in the playoffs. Steadfast play by a healthy Bobrovsky has always had a calming effect on the team in front of him. His focus and competitiveness have been a hallmark of his game. That is making its way into the minds’ of his teammates.
As your mother always said, “It’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.”