Panthers’ Bobrovsky on Year 2 of competition with Knight: ‘The team will win from it’

Daniel A. Varela/dvarela@miamiherald.com

Sergei Bobrovsky always tries to keep his eyes forward and focused on whatever comes next. He takes a narrow view to playing goaltender in the NHL — not as focused on big-picture concerns as he is the next game or shot — yet even he couldn’t hide his feelings about a potential competition with Spencer Knight last year.

He said last year he “wasn’t happy” with the Florida Panthers’ decision to bench him in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs and, to his credit, he responded in the 2021-22 NHL season by seizing full control of the starting job and returning to something close to All-Star form.

“It’s a new season, it’s a new life,” the star goalie said Wednesday, on the eve of training camp. “Everything starts from zero.”

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Still, the competition isn’t totally gone. As long as he’s healthy, Bobrovsky will almost certainly begin the season in net, but Knight is a fledgling star, too, and his .921 save percentage after he returned from a midseason stint with AHL Charlotte in March would’ve ranked fifth in the league across the full year.

In some capacity, the two goaltenders will share the Panthers’ net this year and Florida will have a chance to show off both parts of its potentially dynamic two-headed monster Monday when it opens the preseason with a doubleheader against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena.

Game 1 will start at 4 p.m. with Game 2 scheduled for 8 p.m. and the Panthers could give both goalies a chance to start against the Predators in Nashville to kick off the 2022-23 NHL season, showcasing a potential underrated strength for the upcoming season.

“The goalie situation is, first of all, helping the team,” Bobrovsky said. “When you have that kind of situation where it’s a little bit of competition with the young guy and veteran guy, the team will win from it, for sure, and that’s the most important thing.”

Even if it was just coincidence, the competition seemed to reinvigorate Bobrovsky last year. After posting save percentages of .900 and .906 in his first two seasons in Florida, Bobrovsky led the NHL in wins last year with a .913 save percentage and 2.67 goals against average.

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It was a different sort of challenge for Bobrovsky, who twice won the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender in the league with the Columbus Blue Jackets and then signed a seven-year, $70 million contract with the Panthers in 2019.

Even though backups frequently pushed Bobrovsky throughout those first two rocky seasons, there was never a real threat he might lose his job because of how much Florida invested in him, but the Panthers invested plenty in Knight, too, when they took him in the first round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Bobrovsky had to play well to fend off the looming threat of Knight’s takeover, especially after his stellar performance as a 20-year-old in the 2021 Cup playoffs.

“It’s different challenges. It’s always fun to have,” Bobrovsky said. “They always say the NHL season will bring its challenges always. You can’t go into the season and feel comfortable, you have to be empty and have to approach one day at a time. You don’t know where it comes from, so you just have to be focused, have to be ready and act accordingly when the challenge comes up.”

At some point, Knight will get his chance to be the main option.

For now, Bobrovsky is doing all he can to keep the future on hold.

“He’s a good goalie. He’s a talented guy,” Bobrovsky said. “In the NHL, you have to compete for your job every day. There’s no sweet spot where you can feel comfortable. … There’s always somebody that wants to take your job.”