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Unmasked: Bobrovsky should be fine under Tortorella

by Kevin Woodley

Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky admits he has no confidence after a terrible start to the season.

Bobrovsky has a 5.07 goals-against average and .835 save percentage, and he was in goal for five of the Blue Jackets' season-opening seven-game losing streak that led to the firing of coach Todd Richards on Wednesday.

The question now is how the 2013 Vezina Trophy winner will fare under new coach John Tortorella and a collapsing, shot-blocking style of defense. Assuming Tortorella insists on the same defensive posture that defined his past two coaching jobs, with the Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers, it will be interesting to see what adjustments, if any, the struggling Bobrovsky will have to make behind it.

John Tortorella's system should help Sergei Bobrovsky in net this season. (Photo: Jamie Sabau/NHLI)

Though good defensive play should benefit every goaltender, there's an argument to be made that some systems are better fits with certain puck-stopping styles. It's hard to imagine Henrik Lundqvist being able to play on the goal line if the Rangers consistently gave up shots from the middle of the ice, or Jonathan Quick getting away with his hyper-aggressive tactics without the Los Angeles Kings limiting lateral passes and backdoor options. Tim Thomas told after leaving the Boston Bruins that he couldn't keep playing as aggressively without a take-away-the-middle defense anchored by big defenseman Zdeno Chara cleaning up loose pucks and east-west plays.

So how can Tortorella's preferred style and system affect his goaltenders?

Talking to goaltenders who played behind Tortorella's system in the past, there are positives and negatives that come with the emphasis on shot-blocking and crowding the slot with bodies.

The positives include the obvious: Fewer shots make it through to the net. There was also the sense that collapsing meant your own team was more likely to be in position to clear away dangerous rebounds, something the Blue Jackets have struggled with early this season in front of Bobrovsky, who must accept his share of blame for some of those loose pucks.

The negatives of Tortorella's shot-blocking mentality, according to some of the goalies who played behind it, are highlighted by a tougher time finding shots through all that traffic in front of the net, with their own defensemen sometimes creating additional screens, and the increasing likelihood the puck bounces off something and changes directions on its way toward the net.

So what can that mean in terms of preferred goaltending styles?

It may not be a coincidence that two of the goalies who thrived behind Tortorella-coached teams played deeper in their crease.

Lundqvist has been among the NHL's best no matter what is in front of him, but the three best save-percentage seasons of his NHL career came during three of the final four seasons Tortorella was in New York.

Eddie Lack broke down physically under the weight of 19 straight starts at the end of the 2013-14 season but had a .925 save percentage behind Tortorella's Canucks before Roberto Luongo was traded at the NHL Trade Deadline.

Lack and Lundqvist play a notably more conservative positional game, starting farther back in the crease and attacking out almost exclusively on open looks. Each has good, active hands, allowing him to sit patiently behind the traffic and react to late deflections, while his deeper positioning also shortens the distance he has to cover when a shot does change direction.

Martin Biron never played as deep as Lundqvist, but he felt like he could make better reads under Tortorella because he knew where everyone was going to be. Luongo, who also plays closer to the top of his crease, struggled a little to make his reads while caught up in the extra traffic and got stranded trying to recover that extra distance on redirections.

So what could all this mean for Bobrovsky?

For starters, Bobrovsky is at his best playing a more assertive positional game, not necessarily above his crease but certainly on the edge of it. Those positional staples have waned at times during his early struggles, with Bobrovsky shrinking uncharacteristically into the blue ice while getting beaten cleanly several times, but they were reinforced during extra time with Columbus goaltending coach Ian Clark while backup Curtis McElhinney started consecutive games this week.

Don't expect those positioning anchors to change under Tortorella, and they shouldn't have to.

Bobrovsky is explosive enough laterally, especially on his skates, to recover from aggressive positioning even without the benefit of being able to feel and control where the puck is headed like a goalie does on his own rebounds. His quick feet, ability to connect to loose pucks, and break instantly from technique when needed should help if there is a rise in scrambles.

As for finding shots through the extra traffic, Bobrovsky does get low as the play moves in tight and he prepares to make a save, but he should benefit from a three-stance system that includes a higher, narrower posture when play is on the perimeter. Bobrovsky, who is 6-foot-2, transitions rapidly from one stance to the other but will have to fight hard for sight lines and beat the traffic from one save position to another to dictate its flow around him and stay atop his crease.

Bobrovsky should also get more help directly in front of him under Tortorella.

As much as the Russian goalie has accepted responsibility for the Blue Jackets' early struggles, seven of the eight goals he surrendered in back-to-back games against the Rangers came on shots from between and below the faceoff circles, an area that should be far more heavily defended once Tortorella implements his preferred playing style. With more bodies defending that area down low, there should also be less time and space for opponents to move the puck around on Bobrovsky, who has gotten caught moving too much and opening up holes.

There will be mistakes in any defensive system, and it's the goaltender's job to clean those up confidently, something Bobrovsky has failed to do so far this season. But if he can quickly gain confidence in Tortorella's collapsing style to improve the coverage and take away time and space around his net, Bobrovsky should be able to find his confidence soon enough, even if his more aggressive style doesn't seem to fit as seamlessly into that system as some of the other goaltenders who had success behind it.

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