Crashing the Crease: The Book on Bob

2012 Winter Classic goal by Mike Rupp on Sergei Bobrovsky

Misuse of the "VH position" is one of Bob's nagging flaws. Image courtesy of WashingtonTimes.com.

Now that the 2011-2012 season has officially come to a close with the Stanley Cup having been awarded and the draft around the corner, everyone is looking toward the future of the Flyers.

The future of one player in particular has garnered much attention of late: Sergei Bobrovsky. If you believe what’s floating out there in the rumor mill, it would appear that Bob’s time here in Philadelphia may come to an end soon in lieu of a more experienced, less well-paid backup.

Feelings on this issue are mixed. Many are unhappy with Ilya Bryzgalov, and would blame him for the loss of a talented young goaltender with so much potential, neither of which are entirely unfair points. But a large number of fans are just as content to point out that Bobrovsky’s sophomore campaign was a letdown, that he has gotten worse ever since the tail end of his rookie campaign, and that he does not appear to be what was expected. This negative appraisal of Bobrovsky has a lot more to do with a failure to properly evaluate the goaltender or set realistic expectations than any actual failure on the ice.

Sergei Bobrovsky’s game is a very raw one. Before joining the Philadelphia Flyers’ prospect camp in 2010, the development of his game was almost entirely a self-guided effort. Bobrovsky had no true goaltending coach for his four years in Novokuznetsk and it is remarkable that he came out of Russia as capable as he did. Many were impressed right from the get go when he made his first start against Toronto in preseason, and while the element of surprise was with the man they call Bob for much of that first year, some fundamental flaws in his unrefined game were evident to an observant eye from day one.

During training camp after his first few appearances, I made critical observations of the young goaltender and disagreed with rushing him to the NHL for fear that his flaws would eventually be discovered and exploited.

First and foremost, I felt that his crouch was a bit too low in terms of both body crouch and hand positioning, which wasted his size and opened up too much room upstairs while also making it extra difficult to track pucks in traffic. His low glove positioning also caused him to turn his elbow up on high glove shots rather than simply raising his hand to make a save with the catcher. I also felt that he had a tendency to overcommit and move too aggressively side to side. Blazing fast lateral movement is a wonderful thing until it prohibits good shot recovery by taking the goaltender too far out of position to get back for another save or even just be in the right spot for a rebound to hit him. Lastly, I pointed out his issues in communicating with his defensemen.

Here are some snippets from notes I took on Bobrovsky in his early days as a Flyer:

“His quickness and aggressiveness are great, but you have to learn to use them correctly or guys in the NHL will catch you coming too far, or being too squirrelly, and be able to get you when you’re not perfectly set.”

“He’s good in scrums down low because it’s harder for players to get the shot top cheese and his low coverage and lateral movement are both terrific, but when there’s distance between him and the puck AND he can’t see, he lacks a bit of size. He’s gotta keep working on keeping his hands up higher when he goes down…he’s been really close to a lot of the higher shots, and if he can just keep his hands a little higher he should start getting just enough to tip them high (which he was doing in the SO with that blocker).”

I made these observations after watching just a couple preseason games from Bobrovsky way back in September of 2010. It became predictable very early in Bob’s rookie campaign, when the Calder talk was still buzzing in Philly,  that he would eventually be undone by these issues once the element of surprise left him.

It took a while for players to learn enough about Bobrovsky to plan accordingly and make adjustments, but by the three-quarter mark of the season the book was out on Bob. More high shots started getting over him, more players out-waited him to tuck pucks in after he came sliding too far, more goals came off of broken plays and bad puck hand-offs behind the net. It would be unfair to suggest that these issues fell solely into Bob’s lap as the entire squad played some miserable hockey at that point of the year, but Bob’s late-season struggles were entirely predictable to those who were willing to be critical of his issues from day one in spite of the hype.

Bobrovsky surrenders a high shot to Jordan Staal

Bob's low crouch wastes his size and opens too much upstairs. Courtesy of AP.

Surprisingly, many of these issues persist now that 2012 is halfway over. And on top of those issues, Bob has picked up a new detrimental quirk: the tendency to revert to what is called a “VH position” during inappropriate situations.

A quick primer: the “VH” position refers to when a goaltender kneels down on one knee, keeping one pad vertical and laying the other horizontal (hence “VH”). Prominent goalie coach Steve McKichan (formerly with the Maple Leafs coaching staff) advocates that the VH move has its time and place: largely when dealing with a poor angle, short-side attempt with the shooter approximately in a stick’s reach, often on plays coming from the corner or behind the net where the goaltender must anticipate either a short side shot or needing to make a lateral push to the far side for a wrap play or centering pass.

On shots outside of this distance, the VH actually creates holes and decreases rebound control. But fairly early last season, Bob developed a habit of making a VH shot selection on plays coming off the rush. A prime example would be Mike Rupp’s second goal of the Winter Classic, but this selection was a frequent occurrence last season.

Jon Quick utilizing the VH position

Jon Quick utilizing a proper VH save selection. Courtesy ESPN.com

So, why is it that of all of these problems — with the exception of his much improved stick handling and communication — continue to bother Bobrovsky? It certainly is not a lack of will to improve; Bob’s work ethic and positive learning attitude are well documented in Philadelphia. It may partly be attributed to the language barrier and the learning curve presented to him in coming to a new city, league, culture, and working with a goalie coach. I cannot begin to fathom how difficult it must be to communicate the nuances of the game in those circumstances. However, the fact that he was able to improve his puck handling dramatically would indicate that he, Jeff Reese, and his teammates managed to get over that learning curve.

The problem here is that while the improvement in his ability to play the puck was quite appreciated by Philly fans, media, and defensemen, that seems to have been the only priority. It is essential to be able to make simple plays with the puck behind the net in any league; however, playing the puck will always remain secondary to actually stopping the puck. And Bobrovsky’s other fundamentals — his too-low crouch, his turning of the glove hand elbow, his overcommitments, and his baffling VH save selections — have harmed his performance on the scoreboard for the past year and far more than his poor passing skills.

Old habits die hard, and when a goaltender relies so heavily on natural athleticism, talent, and self-taught style it is especially difficult to adjust. I know this from my own experience, having never had an actual goalie couch outside of one year in college.

However, it can be done. Bob has the right attitude and his work ethic is more than strong enough to get over some of these problems. The problem is, Reese hasn’t gotten him to focus on righting the correct wrongs. Bob flat out needs better guidance if he is going to realize his potential. For his sake, I hope he receives it in the future, whether here in Philadelphia or elsewhere should the trade rumors come true.

Wherever his next chapter may be, it would be nice if the book on Bobrovsky weren’t as simple as “get a little traffic, just shoot high, let him scramble and open up, or throw it on net short side.”