It could not have been easy for Philadelphia Flyers fans to see goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky hoist the 2013 Vezina Trophy one year after being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. There was no need, however, to rekindle any angst when Bobrovsky was named NHL Second Star of the Week heading into a game against the Flyers on Tuesday.
Bobrovsky would be the first to remind fans still upset by his departure that the goalie Philadelphia traded is not the same one now stopping pucks and winning awards in Columbus. He has made significant technical and tactical adjustments since leaving.
"I would say it's two different goalies right now comparing me in Philly and right now in Columbus," Bobrovsky told NHL.com. "I changed my style a lot. Mentally, physically, technically, all those things have changed here."
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If that story sounds familiar to Philadelphia fans, it's because the Flyers' current goalie, Steve Mason, has undergone a similar transformation since arriving from Columbus in April 2013.
Like Bobrovksy, Mason has benefitted from tactical changes since joining a new team. In addition to easing the pain of losing Bobrovsky, Mason's resurgence in Philadelphia is another reminder that one style does not fit all when it comes to NHL goaltending.
"It's two different guys," Bobrovsky said, referencing the changes to his game. "As soon as I got here I believed I needed a system to be confident and consistent. And that's not to say, 'I got my system and it's done, now we can just enjoy the game.' It's always you work on your system, add new things and work on it and polish technique and get better and better."
The biggest technical adjustment Bobrovsky made came soon after arriving in Columbus. It revolved around playing bigger than he did during his first two NHL seasons with the Flyers.
When Bobrovsky broke in as the NHL's Rookie of the Month in November 2010, he was an explosive, athletic goalie whose stature on the ice didn't always match his 6-foot-2 listing in the media guide. He is taller now through his core, especially while down in his butterfly. That was one of several adjustments that started in the summer of 2012 during sessions with Blue Jackets goalie coach Ian Clark.
"The biggest adjustment was just getting him higher," Clark said.
With his chest more upright, Bobrovsky's hands now are out in front of him rather than pulled back by his ears in relation to a forward-pitched torso, making for cleaner saves with the glove and the blocker. Another benefit of becoming taller is Bobrovsky is able to back off his positioning without sacrificing coverage. The conservative depth that results allows him use his quick feet more efficiently, beating the play to more neutral targets rather than chasing it outside his crease with huge lateral pushes that have the added detriment of lowering his center of gravity.
"He's using his speed more effectively," Clark said. "He was covering too much space. So take that quickness, put a little bit of a harness on it, and I think that's been a big maturation for him. It's not entirely been done here, that's his maturation."
Sergei Bobrovsky is playing bigger in Columbus' crease than he did during his stint in Philadelphia. (Photo: Scott Audette/NHLI)
Bobrovsky also added Reverse, or Reverse-VH, as a post-integration tactic. He asked Clark to bring in Oskar Dansk, a Blue Jackets prospect who excels at the relatively new technique, so they could work on it together. Clark, who also spends time coaching in Sweden and was part of the evolution of the Reverse from a static save selection to a complete movement into and off the posts, said that wrinkle has been instrumental in Bobrovsky playing a more controlled game.
"Instead of him flowing everywhere in his crease, he's always got a post target so he has no overflow in his game now," Clark said.
It's now a big part of Bobrovsky's new "system," which includes a philosophy of playing at different depths relative to his crease for rush chances vs. end-zone play, and the adoption of three stances depending on where the puck is.
Though Bobrovsky's style adjustments may sound complicated, for Mason it was simplifying his game in Philadelphia that allowed him to improve his performance. Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese played a major role in the transformation.
Mason displayed the physical tools to succeed when he won the Calder Trophy in 2009, but his save percentage dipped below .900 during the next four seasons through some tough times with the Blue Jackets. It has risen to .919 since the trade to the Flyers, an upward trend Mason links to moving backward in his crease.
"The first day I got here working, Reese said he was happy to get his hands on me and start putting things into my game he wanted to do for a while, and one of those was sitting back on the posts on faceoffs, sitting back off the rush," Mason told NHL.com last season. "Being a big goaltender and taking up a lot of the net without having to come out far gives me that advantage to be able to go side to side. It has given me a confidence in my game I didn't have for a long time."
Goalie - PHI
GAA: 2.69 | SVP: .917
For Mason, who struggled to consistently manage reads and depth in Columbus, this simpler system seems to be better because it always keeps him in position to use his size and athleticism, neither of which were of much use when he got caught outside his crease using his previous style.
"To have that patience to trust your reflexes, trust your positioning, trust you don't have to make that first move dropping to your knees," Mason said. "When you are on your knees it's a bit of a comfort zone knowing you are already taking away the lower portion of the net. But when you are holding your feet as long as possible you give yourself an opportunity to beat the pass and get set for the next shot, and it's just become a very natural feeling in my game now."
Bobrovsky and Mason found their comfort zones playing new styles with new goalie coaches on new teams, further proof there isn't just one "right" way to stop a puck, even in the NHL.