Bob strong candidate for Flyers' 1st Calder Trophy

Bobrovsky
Bobrovsky
Posted: April 05, 2011

OTTAWA - The calendar has flipped to April.

The marathon, 82-game slate has been whittled down to just three contests.

And the ballots for the various NHL trophies, to be presented at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas on June 21, have been distributed to members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

There was much written last week, around the NHL, with writers making cases for players for the Hart or Vezina trophies, awarded to the league's most valuable player and top goaltender, respectively.

For my money, the most interesting trophy that still needs deciding is the only major award that no Flyer has ever won: the Calder Trophy, the hardware handed out to the rookie of the year.

This year, there will be close to 160 writers casting ballots for the five major awards (Hart, Norris, Selke, Lady Byng and Calder) - and almost unanimously, through polls conducted throughout the season, each writer has room for just one rookie goaltender.

The skaters have been easy enough to select.

Few players have shined in a bigger role than Carolina's Jeff Skinner, who is easily one of the most popular players in a nontraditional hockey market. Skinner, just 18, has netted an impressive 29 goals and 29 assists for 58 points.

Most telling, Skinner has eight points in his last eight games as the Hurricanes have skated within two points of a playoff spot.

On Long Island, forward Michael Grabner has taken the league by storm since winning the fastest-skater contest at the All-Star Game in January. Grabner had just 13 points on Jan. 12. Since, he has 37 points in 35 games and, with 31 goals, is tied for the rookie lead with San Jose's Logan Couture.

At one point, Grabner collected 16 goals in 15 games.

Couture, 22, has put together a solid season, but he also had the benefit of playing 25 games for the Sharks last season. That makes him less impressive of a candidate - as it's easy to work out all summer and plan for the rigors of the NHL when you've already been through a quarter of the season and know what it takes.

One dark horse few have mentioned is Capitals defenseman John Carlson, who has been a steady influence on Washington's blue line in the absence of Mike Green and has 37 points. Carlson, however, doesn't have the swagger or flashiness that the aforementioned forwards bring to the ice on a nightly basis.

The goaltending race is much tougher to handicap. There is no separate trophy for rookie goaltender of the year and rookie skater of the year.

The bigger problem, though, is that there are three rookie goalies who will simply mutilate each other in the balloting process, stealing votes from one another. Corey Crawford is close to carrying a depleted Chicago team back to the playoffs. Washington turned the reins to its crease over to Michal Neuvirth after cutting Jose Theodore loose in the offseason.

My ballot has yet to be filled out. Votes like these should be taken seriously. As such, I will wait until the last possible moment, to fully digest the complete regular season for each player - and judge based on the whole and not its parts.

That's why I'm leaning toward the Flyers' Sergei Bobrovsky as my third Calder finalist and not Crawford or Neuvirth.

Statistically, all three goaltenders are close. Crawford quickly supplanted Marty Turco for the Blackhawks' starting job. He has a 31-17-5 record in 51 starts with a .918 save percentage and 2.27 goals-against average.

Neuvirth is 26-11-4 with a .914 save percentage and a less-impressive 2.50 GAA.

For me, the case for Bobrovsky is simple. He didn't even land in North America until August. Few knew his name, let alone what to expect from him. Bobrovsky hadn't even played a single game in a North American-style rink until a rookie game against Washington in September.

Bobrovsky, 22, went from the worst team in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League to one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Now, he is leading the Flyers into the Stanley Cup playoffs as their starter apparent - and he has won over a fan base that places more pressure on their goaltending than any city outside of Montreal.

Bobrovsky has gone 28-12-7 with a .918 save percentage and a 2.47 goals-against.

What's most impressive is his demeanor - always smiling, never flappable - and work ethic. When he is not starting, it is common to find him out on the ice with goalie coach Jeff Reese after his teammates have already showered and gone home.

And it's hard to get inside his head.

Bobrovsky didn't flinch when he was handed the starting nod on opening night back on Oct. 7 at Pittsburgh's new Consol Energy Center, when everyone else expected Michael Leighton to start the season fresh.

And Bobrovsky hasn't flinched of late, stringing together some of his best play of the season over his last five starts, allowing just seven goals. His record has suffered with two shootout losses during that span because his teammates haven't been able to finish in front of him.

Unlike Bobrovsky, Neuvirth, 23, made his first NHL appearance in 2008-09. Crawford, barely under the Calder age requirement of 27, first started for Blackhawks in 2005-06, the first year after the lockout - when Leighton was still with Chicago.

Neuvirth, from the Czech Republic, started 74 games in his major junior career in the Ontario Hockey League before jumping to the pros. Both Neuvirth and Crawford have spent a long time crafting their game to make the jump to the NHL level.

They can't be penalized for that.

But there is something to be said for a guy like Bobrovsky, who still barely knows a lick of the English language, and was so afraid to leave his crease for the first half of the season that he didn't play a single puck. He is a true rookie in every sense of the word - and he deserves to be a finalist in Las Vegas in June.

Just don't call me a homer for giving him my vote.

Slap shots

GM Paul Holmgren said both Blair Betts and Danny Briere are "not likely" to play tonight against Ottawa. The Flyers recalled forward Ben Holmstrom from Adirondack . . . Mike Matczak, a Sewell, N.J., native who just wrapped up a 4-year career at Yale, is skating with the Phantoms for the remainder of the regular season on an amateur tryout contract . . . Danny Syvret is expected to remain in the lineup in place of Nick Boynton . . . Jody Shelley, still recovering from surgery for a fractured left orbital bone, said he hopes to be cleared to return on Friday. He accompanied the Flyers to Ottawa.

Stat watch

Jan. 23:

Date of Nik Zherdev's last goal before Sunday. Zherdev sat out 16 straight games as a healthy scratch before Friday's loss in New Jersey.

5:

Goals for James van Riemsdyk in the last six games.

8:

Multipoint games for Claude Giroux since the All-Star break ended Jan. 31.

14:48:

Minutes for defenseman Danny Syvret on Sunday in his first game with the Flyers this season.

$277,462:

Amount the Flyers have paid this year into the NHLPA's Emergency Assistance Fund as part of suspensions and fines. No player has been fined or suspended since Jan. 17.

THE WEEK AHEAD

at Ottawa

Tonight, 7:30

The Senators, still carrying up the rear of the Eastern Conference, might present the biggest "look ahead" threat to the Flyers of their remaining three contests. Ottawa signed prized free-agent prospect Stephane Da Costa from Merrimack last Thursday and he made his NHL debut on Saturday against Toronto, playing 11:22. Ottawa has just one forward with more than 50 points this season compared to the Flyers' five.

at Buffalo

Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Buffalo has been scratching and clawing for weeks now to maintain a solid position in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Exactly one week ago, the Sabres were five points up on ninth-place Carolina. That lead has evaporated. By Friday, the Sabres may be fighting just to stay in it. Ryan Miller is still recovering from an upper-body injury but in his absence, Jhonas Enroth picked up Third Star of the Week honors with a 2-0-1 record and 1.94 goals-against average. In just 11 games this season, Enroth has more shutouts than the Flyers.

vs. New York Islanders

Saturday, 7 o'clock

The Flyers close out the regular season on Saturday against an Islanders team that they have lost to just once (April 1, 2010) since 2008. New York has little to play for except jobs for next season, and it has already slipped under .500 under the guidance of coach Jack Capuano. The Islanders have won just once in their last five games.

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