The plan in net seemed so simple for the Florida Panthers. The team made two huge splashes on the goalie front this summer, signing top available free agent Sergei Bobrovsky to a long-term deal and drafting top available prospect Spencer Knight with the No. 13 overall pick. The team believed they could lean on Bobrovsky, a netminder capable of making 60+ appearances in a season, for many years to come before eventually moving on to Knight as the starter. All they needed was a backup who could put up decent numbers in limited action for a few years while bridging the gap to Knight. They believed the man for the job was Sam Montembeault.
On many levels, that plan has not worked out for Florida and now changes are being made. The team announced that Montembeault has been reassigned to the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds with Chris Driedger getting the call as his replacement. Yet, the issues in net truly stem from the keeper not involved in this transaction: Sergei Bobrovsky. After inking a seven-year, $70MM contract this off-season, the Panthers $10MM man has been nothing but a massive disappointment. Bobrovksy is in the midst of the worst season of his career – and it’s not particularly close. He holds an .888 save percentage and 3.44 GAA, both well worse than his existing career lows. Yet, the Panthers have had little choice but to continue playing him over the inexperienced Montembeault. In fact, Bobrovsky actually leads the league with 20 appearances. He has started 19 of the team’s 24 games despite a paltry .368 quality start percentage.
Bobrovsky may be on pace for 65 starts, but Florida still likely did not plan for Montembeault to have made five starts and two relief appearances at the quarter pole of the season. The 23-year-old was supposed to have a sheltered role, but has instead been exposed frequently early this season; and it shows in the results. Montembeault has been just as bad as Bobrovsky, posting an .889 save percentage and 3.31 GAA. The young keeper, who can still be moved to the minors without needing waivers, has been asked to do too much and now the team has opted to send him to the AHL, where he can hopefully see some consistent action and re-discover his game against weaker opposition. Whether or not they trust him to be back as Bobrovsky’s backup anytime soon remains to be seen.
If there is one silver lining to this situation, it is that Driedger will get a chance to show what he can do at the highest level. Two of Driedger’s three NHL appearances have been shutouts, but that hasn’t stopped him from also spending time in the ECHL in five of the past six seasons as he has continually been passed up on the depth chart. Driedger has earned a real chance in the NHL, especially as he sports a .983 save percentage and 2.08 GAA in 14 appearances for Springfield this year. The 25-year-old former Ottawa Senators prospect will undoubtedly get another NHL opportunity soon given Bobrovsky’s play and his edge in experience over the previous backup Montembeault. Who knows, he could even be a candidate for a Jordan Binnington-esque storyline this season if the Panthers’ starter continues to falter. The Panthers could use that sort of breakout, as they undoubtedly are already re-thinking this summer’s big investment.