Don't rule out Russian goalie making Flyers

Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is an undrafted free-agent signee.
Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is an undrafted free-agent signee.
Posted: September 17, 2010

Arlington, Va. - The statistics are far from surprising.

Last month, in a survey conducted on Philly.com, 75 percent of Flyers fans listed goaltending as their biggest area of concern for the upcoming season - not the forwards, defense, or even the usual suspects like management and coaching.

Flyers fans have been clamoring for a goaltender since, well, Ron Hextall. Or even Pelle Lindbergh, who tragically passed away almost 25 years ago.

Sergei Bobrovsky, a 22-year-old Russian, is poised to be the next big name.

"Could Bobrovsky make this team out of training camp? Without a doubt," one Flyers team source told the Daily News. "He has a lot of work to do. But I can guarantee he will be competitive."

That makes Bobrovsky the Flyers' most hyped rookie goaltender since Maxime Ouellet or Jean-Marc Pelletier. Neither of those guys panned out like the longtime starters they were projected to be.

Ouellet, a former first-rounder, was traded to Washington in 2002 and played just 12 NHL games. He retired from hockey in 2008. Pelletier, a cocky second-rounder, played a grand total of seven NHL games but is still kicking ... in Hamburg, Germany.

"He's exciting," Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese said of Bobrovsky. "He's a good prospect right now. The biggest impression he's made around here is that he doesn't want to come off the ice. He'd stay out there for 8 hours a day if he could."

The Flyers signed Bobrovsky, an undrafted free agent, to a 3-year deal on May 8. He arrived in the United States in July to take part in the summer rookie camp, without knowing a word of English. He has been taking English lessons three times a week but still is not comfortable enough to answer questions without a translator.

"I'm here to play hockey and not have conversations out there," Bobrovsky said on Monday through translator Slava Kouznetsova. "I came here to play for the Flyers and I will do anything I can to get ready for the main team. My goal is to get in optimal shape for the season and get used to North American hockey."

Professional hockey is nothing new for Bobrovsky, who started for two seasons in Russia's KHL - albeit for one of the worst teams - and posted relatively strong numbers. Fellow newcomer Nikolai Zherdev skated in the KHL last year after five NHL seasons.

But North American hockey is a different story.

"It's a faster game," Bobrovsky said. "It's a smaller ice. I have to move faster to make sure I see the different things and different shots."

The faster he can adjust, the faster he will play in the NHL.

"He's going to have to get used to the traffic," Reese said. "He's going to have to get used to the smaller rinks. He's going to have to get used to the fact that guys shoot from everywhere. He's very athletic. He moves very well. He looks like he's comfortable."

Yesterday, Bobrovsky made his North American debut as the starter in the Flyers' rookie camp scrimmage against the Capitals in suburban Washington. He allowed two soft goals on 30 shots. One was from a strange angle and the other trickled through traffic.

"It was my first game here," Bobrovsky reminded with the help of Yahoo Sports' Dmitry Chesnokov. "A lot of the shots, the intensity, were different. I still have a lot of things to work on. I was ready for shots from every angle.

"But it really wasn't about the shots for me, it was about the atmosphere of being in this sort of game. It was really exciting for me. I can't really describe what it was - the emotional level and the fans - of being in the game."

At the end of last season, many expected Johan Backlund to challenge Brian Boucher for the backup role. Backlund started one game for the Flyers before leaving with a hip injury, which required offseason surgery. He still hasn't fully recovered.

Not even Backlund knows what to expect in training camp.

"I'm slowly going forward," Backlund said. "It's hard to say . I feel like I'm really close. But at the same time, I don't know how it will react.

"For sure, my goal was to be ready for camp and compete for a job. But I need to let my body decide. I'm almost 100 percent, so it would be stupid to rush it now."

Bobrovsky will be the main focus when training camp officially opens this afternoon. If Bobrovsky were to make the team, he would be the highest-paid goaltender with a $1.75 million salary.

Until then, Michael Leighton, who signed a 2-year, $3.1 million deal in the offseason, is the only goalie set in stone. Even with a 24-8-2 record last season, playoffs included, 48 percent of fans said they will take a "wait and see" approach with Leighton.

Wait and see. That's been the story of the Flyers' parade of goaltenders. Since 2000, 14 different goaltenders have started a game for the Flyers.

With a limited sample size, Bobrovsky has some work to do. But he could look entirely different after 40 games of seasoning in Adirondack.

"I am far off and I am not far off [from the NHL]," Bobrovsky said. "I'm not really ready, but I am working on myself and I am getting ready to play."

Reese said he is "cautiously optimistic" about Bobrovsky, not wanting to put too much pressure on the goalie's flexible frame.

"He could absolutely surprise people," Reese said. "He's young but he's a pretty polished guy. He's played in a pretty good league, arguably the second-best league in the world. Everybody is going to be battling for jobs."

Slap shots

Veteran forward Nikolai Zherdev arrived in Philadelphia late Wednesday and was on the ice yesterday in Vorhees ... Mike Testwuide assisted on Ben Holmstrom's second-period goal. Marc-Andre Bourdon and Eric Wellwood scored the other two Flyers goals ... Zac Rinaldo dropped the gloves with Washington's Trevor Bruess, who said before the game that he "wanted to fight a Flyer." Problem was, it wasn't much of a scrap - just some dirty dancing and bear hugging ... Bourdon, the rookie team's captain, stood out with his calmness and presence on the blue line, and crisp passes ... Recently retired Flyer Riley Cote made his rookie coaching debut ... Capitals stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom watched the contest along with Mike Knuble.

INJURY REPORT

After a bruising, 23-game playoff run, a few of the Flyers needed offseason surgery to completely recover. Here's an update on their status:

CHRIS PRONGER

Pronger, who turns 36 next month, had surgery in late July to "remove loose bodies" in his right knee. He is not expected to participate in many training-camp activities. Pronger has been at the Skate Zone rehabbing for a few weeks and skated briefly Wednesday for the first time since the surgery. Last season, Pronger averaged an unnecessary 26:42 in ice time in the preseason before going on to play 2,794 minutes and 12 seconds in 105 regular-season and playoff games - more than anyone in the NHL. His status for the Oct. 7 opener is uncertain. Until then, Matt Walker and Sean O'Donnell will use his spot to battle for the sixth and seventh roster spots on defense.

VILLE LEINO

Leino, 26, had surgery in early July to repair a nagging hip injury. After a few weeks on crutches and a copious amount of rehab, Leino is skating well and will be close to 100 percent as training camp begins today. "I'm close,'' Leino said Tuesday. "I feel good about it. I haven't talked about contact yet but we'll see where we are when practice and the games get started.''

BLAIR BETTS

Betts, the Flyers' top penalty killer, hopes the third right shoulder surgery of his 8-year pro career will do the trick. This procedure, performed in July, was to repair a painful dislocation that kept him off the ice at times last season. "I'm pretty close to being back to normal," Betts said. Betts noted that he should be cleared for contact drills today for the first on-ice practice tomorrow. That will be the real test. "You can sometimes tell its strength in the weight room but the only real way to test it is to throw yourself out there," Betts said.

JOHAN BACKLUND

Backlund, 29, planned to enter training camp and compete for the backup goalie job with Brian Boucher. Instead, Backlund likely will not see any time in camp because of offseason hip surgery. The procedure repaired the nagging injury that caused him to leave his only NHL start in Pittsburgh on March 27. Backlund just started going down in his butterfly position in on-ice drills this week.

OTHER INJURIES

Forward Dan Carcillo, who re-signed on July 13, had offseason abdominal surgery but is back to full health ... Phantoms defenseman Kevin Marshall had offseason hip surgery and has started skating, but will be held out of most drills and games.

5 THINGS TO WATCH

1. WILL GUERIN MAKE IT?

The Flyers signed veteran free agent Bill Guerin to a tryout contract on Monday but he is free to leave at any point during camp to sign with another team. Will Guerin, who turns 40 in November, carve out a spot for himself? His arrival could mean the waiving of Darroll Powe or Dan Carcillo, as Guerin would have to fit under the salary cap. There are few downsides to a player fresh off a 45-point season with 429 career goals and 18 seasons of experience.

2. DEFENSIVE BATTLES

Yes, the Flyers were lucky that their top four defensemen of Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn missed just a combined three games last season. But they can't afford to keep eight defensemen on the active roster. Will they keep unreliable Oskars Bartulis? Or waive Bartulis to the Phantoms and keep NHL vets Matt Walker ($1.7 million salary, acquired for Simon Gagne) and Sean O'Donnell ($1.3 million salary, free agent)?

3. CAN BOBROVSKY BE BACKUP?

Will Sergei Bobrovsky show enough in training camp - his first real introduction to pro hockey in North America - to warrant consideration for the backup spot? He will undoubtedly see action in the preseason, giving the 22-year-old Russian with a $1.75 million contract a chance to win the job.

4. MESZAROS THE MAIN MAN

When the Flyers acquired Andrej Meszaros from Tampa Bay in exchange for a draft pick on July 1, the price seemed cheap. We forgot about his 4-year, $4 million per year contract. Meszaros could be awfully expensive for a third or fourth defenseman, unless he plays more like the top-pair player he once appeared to be.

5. ZHERDEV: PART II

This will be Nikolai Zherdev's second crack at the NHL; after five seasons with Columbus and the Rangers, he spent last year in Russia's KHL. The gifted scorer and former first-round pick is just 25 and has bested 50 points in a season three out of five times. He has questions surrounding his commitment to defense and his work ethic in both games and practices.

Honorable mention: Chris Pronger's health; the continued development of James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux; the questionable addition of forward Jody Shelley; and Ville Leino's return from playoff superstardom.

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