Who could have guessed that with Sergei Bobrovsky on their roster, the Florida Panthers goalie I would choose to put “In the Spotlight” would be Chris Driedger, the 26-year-old who didn’t make his first NHL start until just last season. Stranger things have happened, though, and when a goalie gets on a roll, it’s hard to ignore it, no matter their body of work to date. Here’s a look into Driedger, the Panthers goalie who has earned himself more and more starts this season, and has impressed at every turn.
Driedger’s Path to Being the Panthers’ “1B”
Driedger is built like an NHL goaltender – six-foot-four, 208 lbs, with a prototypical stance – but his path to an NHL crease hasn’t been an easy one. Drafted by the Ottawa Senators in the third round of the 2012 NHL entry draft, the Winnipeg, Manitoba native would have to wait seven years before even making his first NHL start. At that, it wouldn’t even be with the team that drafted him, but a couple thousand miles south in sunny Florida.
Although he had seen some NHL action relieving goalies in a couple of games here and there for the Senators, Driedger never got the chance to start an NHL game for them. Instead, he ended up making his first NHL start with the Panthers, and what a first start it was.
When the Panthers’ backup to Bobrovsky, Sam Montembault, went down with an injury early in the 2019-20 season, Driedger was called up from the AHL to back Bob up for the time being. That was on November 25th, and Driedger ended up making his first start just five days later. He would go on to have the best game a goalie could possibly having, making 27 saves in a 3-0 victory over the Nashville Predators, his first career win and first career shutout.
Driedger started 15 games in the 2019-20 season, and has started 15 more through 35 games for the Panthers so far in the 2020-21 NHL season. This season, he is 9-4-2 with a 2.19 goals against average (GAA), .927 save percentage (SV%), and one shutout.
In his career, Driedger is 16-7-3 with a 2.16 GAA, .930 SV%, and two shutouts through 30 games played. He has played up to and beyond the expectations set for him, all while playing on an expiring contract with a cap hit of just $850,000. He is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) after this season.
Panthers Are Married to Bobrovsky, For Now
After beloved Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo retired from the NHL, the team had to make a move and acquire their next starting goalie. As it turns out, the top free agent goalie in a number of years was coming on the market before the Panthers had to suffer too much without a true starter. Bobrovsky, who had just helped the Columbus Blue Jackets sweep the President’s Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, was about to ink a monster deal with the team, worth $10 million per year over seven years.
The 32-year-old Russian goaltender is a former Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s best goaltender, and has had seasons most goalies could only dream about. Since coming to the Panthers, though, Bob hasn’t really been “Bob,” but his play has improved this season compared to last. In just the second year of his seven year deal, the Panthers can’t afford to have Bobrovsky playing poorly, so it’s good he’s showing signs of turning around.
In the 2020-21 season, Bobrovksy is 13-5-2 through 20 games played, with a 2.91 GAA and .903 SV%. Having played just five more games than Driedger this season, I think it’s fair to compare the two’s stat lines, and in doing so, Bobrovsky’s stats pale in comparison to Driedger’s. But his monster contract is probably going to keep the Panthers from being able to even think about re-signing Driedger after the season is up.
Bobrovsky has a resume that should make any fan feel at ease, though, and one can reckon that the team still has three or four more years of a potentially elite goalie on the roster. During his time in the NHL, Bob has 500+ career games played, 291 wins, and had three straight seasons with the Blue Jackets where he picked up 60+ starts. He started 50 games for the Panthers last season, and looks to still be able to carry that kind of load.
Spencer Knight Makes Driedger Prime Trade Bait
And now for the elephant in the room: although Driedger has been lights out for the Panthers this season, his time with the team might be up sooner than later. As I mentioned before, he is a UFA after this season, and Bobrovsky’s contract might hurt the Panthers’ ability to give him the kind of money he’s looking for. Not to mention, they have a young goalie prospect in the pipeline who could be ready for the NHL in just a few more years if given the chance.
Spencer Knight, the Panthers’ first-round draft choice (13th overall) in the 2019 NHL draft, is just waiting for his time between the pipes, and while it might be a while before the 19-year-old gets the call up, the Panthers are all in on this guy. Knight is just fresh off of winning the gold medal at the 2021 World Junior Championships with Team USA, and has excelled in his college hockey career with the NCAA’s Boston College Eagles so far.
With a prospect as promising as Knight, the Panthers are in an interesting predicament: they seem to have an abundance of riches. All things considered, it’s not the worst problem to have.
Driedger has become the subject of trade rumors approaching the 2021 NHL trade deadline, and given how well he’s played, he could probably fetch a heck of a bargain from the right suitor. After all, teams in need of their next starting goalie like the Buffalo Sabres, San Jose Sharks, and others, would pay a pretty penny for someone of Driedger’s status.
All of this remains speculation for now, but the smart move for the Panthers would seem to be to capitalize on Driedger’s market value right now and trade him at the deadline, call up Montembault to back up Bobrovsky for now, and develop Knight into their next franchise goaltender.
One thing is for certain: At 22-9-4 with 48 points in the standings, the Panthers are in a pretty good spot, and there is not so much a sense of urgency to force a trade as there would be at a different spot in the standings. The team is third in the Discover Central Division™, just two points behind the first-place Lightning. The most important thing right now is making sure that if a trade does become more likely, they fetch all they can in the deal.