Sergei Bobrovsky's heart now belongs to the Florida Panthers.
The two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie told Russian sports website Sport24 on Wednesday that he's "turned the page and is looking forward" to the next phase of his NHL career after signing a seven-year, $70 million contract (average annual value $10 million) with the Panthers as a free agent July 1 following seven seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"I felt like I needed changes," he said. "It was less about the tensions with the [Blue Jackets], more like my heart told me to start exploring new horizons."
Bobrovsky, who turns 31 on Sept. 20, said there were "definitely other offers, good offers," but that "Florida [was] the first option for me. It's a good young team, solid management, a very good coach just arrived. I believe I have a chance to win the Stanley Cup with this team. Plus living conditions, you play a winter sport in the South, with palm trees and ocean around you."
The Panthers, who finished 36-32-14 last season, 12 points behind the Blue Jackets for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, hired three-time Cup-winner Joel Quenneville as coach April 8, replacing Bob Boughner. Quenneville guided the Chicago Blackhawks to the Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, and his 890 wins are second to Scotty Bowman in NHL history.
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The Blue Jackets made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons under coach John Tortorella, with whom Bobrovsky had an up-and-down relationship.
"Torts has his pluses and minuses," Bobrovsky said. "He is what he is. Impulsive. Says what he thinks. Does what he thinks is right. There were days when he was complimentary during the regular season, but there were also days when he might criticize during a press conference or in the locker room. I [didn't always agree] with his opinion and because of that we had multiple [heated] conversations.
"But he has many pluses too. The team started to play better after his arrival. He installed discipline. He demanded the maximum from each player. We started to make the playoffs regularly. He's also a skilled psychologist and a very strong motivator."
Bobrovsky was 37-24-1 with a 2.58 goals-against average, a .913 save percentage and nine shutouts for Columbus last season. He allowed eight goals in four games to help the Blue Jackets sweep the Presidents' Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round for their first playoff series victory since entering the NHL in 2000.
The Blue Jackets lost their second-round series to the Boston Bruins in six games; Bobrovsky finished the playoffs 6-4 with a 2.41 GAA and .925 save percentage.
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In his previous three playoff series with Columbus, Bobrovsky was 5-12 and never finished with a GAA better than 3.18. He said during training camp last fall that he intended to become a free agent and sign elsewhere.
"I told management after the 2017-18 season that I won't be staying, although they didn't act," he said. "On the contrary, they started to speak about a contract extension more frequently. I am that type of person. I made my plans known and didn't play any games (with the organization). It would be much harder for me to look at the mirror in case I'd say to everyone that I'm staying and then leave.
"It was [tough mentally], especially at the start of the season. The atmosphere wasn't really pleasant, there were conflicts inside the locker room, a lot of team meetings, [my] suspension, few other things. But as a professional, I was working hard to stay focused and win every game."
Bobrovsky left the bench after being pulled in a 4-0 loss at the Lightning on Jan. 8 and did not dress for a game against the Nashville Predators two nights later. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen said only that "there are certain expectations and values that we have established for our players that define our culture" and that "an incident occurred in which Sergei failed to meet those expectations and values." Bobrovsky dressed as the backup to Joonas Korpisalo in Columbus' 2-1 overtime win at the Washington Capitals on Jan. 12.
The Blue Jackets also lost their top scorer, forward Artemi Panarin, who signed a seven-year, $81.5 million contract (average annual value $11.64 million) with the New York Rangers. Bobrovsky said the two Russia-born players discussed going as a package deal.
"Yes, that was the initial plan," he said. "But I think we both did the right thing. Artemi is happy with the Rangers, and so am I with Florida."
NHL.com/ru staff writer Sergei Butov contributed to this report