Columbus’ star goaltender was torn to pieces inside and out. Repairing him – and rebuilding him – was the key to jumpstarting their epic season.
Sergei Bobrovsky was a mental mess as one cog on a struggling Columbus team that opened 2015-16 with eight consecutive losses, replacing coach Todd Richards with John Tortorella after the seventh, and was practically out of the post-season hunt by late October. Bobrovsky’s 2.75 goals-against average and .908 save percentage were the second-worst marks of his career. His Vezina Trophy campaign of 2012-13 felt like a dream.
As Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen put it, Bobrovsky felt exposed the way only a goalie could.
“He openly said last year he lost his confidence,” Kekalainen said. “If there’s one position where lost confidence can be seen very easily, it is goaltending. You can lose your confidence as the left winger on the fourth line, and 18,000 people in the stands might not notice it.”
More than Bobrovsky’s mind, however, his body failed him miserably. Groin injuries shelved him three times last year. He appeared in just 37 of 82 games. The same damage to the same soft-tissue area had knocked ‘Bob’ out of Columbus’ lineup five times in three seasons. The problem was officially chronic. Something had to change.
Kekalainen and Blue Jackets management consulted with doctors in the off-season in hopes of rebuilding their fallen stopper. The news was relatively encouraging: Bobrovsky had not built up scar tissue, meaning his risk of re-injury wasn’t particularly high. The Jackets determined the repeated groin strains were less because of long-term damage manifesting itself and more because of Bobrovsky’s playing style. He’s an athletic goaltender and was overexerting himself. Kekalainen spoke with him this off-season and told him he’d rather have him using just 95 percent of his athleticism and scrambling ability if it meant staying healthy 100 percent of the time.
That included toning things down in the gym, where the fitness-obsessed Bobrovsky is known to be the first guy in and the last guy out every day. He typically walked around at a muscular 6-foot-2 and 199 pounds, and the medical consultation suggested he would stay healthy easier if he had less meat on his frame. That way, he’d be more flexible, which would cater to his style of play, which is heavy on movement. Bobrovsky shaved down to 182 pounds.
“You look at his body last year and the body composition, and all his body fats and all that, you’d say it was impossible,” Kekalainen said. “But he did it. He basically sculpted his body into a different form in the off-season, and it wasn’t fat that was coming off his body, I can tell you that. That just tells you about his dedication and how serious he is about his professionalism and how he approaches every day.”
The key was changing Bobrovsky’s diet, which can be hell for many calorie-mad athletes but didn’t seem to faze him.
“I would say I’m pretty disciplined about everything in life, and it wasn’t too hard for me to do that," he said.
The plan was a resounding success. In fact, ‘Bob’ feels so good that he’s playing more than ever. He starred for Russia at September’s World Cup, a tournament he said helped him feel sharp earlier than normal. He's been truly dominant in 2016-17, with a 25-5-2 record, a 1.92 GAA and a .934 SP. numbers eerily similar to and actually a bit better than his Vezina stat line of 21-11-6, 2.00, .932. He was just named the NHL's player of the month for December. The Blue Jackets won their 16th consecutive game Tuesday and now sit one game behind the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins' record of 17. Bob's personal win streak hums along at 14.
When he captured the Vezina in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he started 37 of Columbus’ 48 games, good for a career-high 77 percent. This season he's started 32 of 36, a whopping 89 percent. The Chicken Little reaction is to question how Columbus intends to keep Bobrovsky healthy by wearing him down to a nub. As Kekalainen explains, however, the workload is based not on games or percentage of games, but on the schedule. The gaps between games were favorable early on for the Jackets. They had no problem playing him even in back to backs if they knew they had several days off afterward. It’s tough to argue with the results.
Bobrovsky’s confidence has regenerated, too. Kekalainen suggests the team, now soaring at 27-5-4, simply gives its goalie more help now, which puts far less pressure on him to stand on his head. Bobrovsky sees an emotional force behind his and the team’s turnaround, too.
“We got to know ‘Torts’ better, and it’s a way different atmosphere in the locker room,” Bobrovsky said. “How we feel about how we go about our practices, how we go about our business, that’s all higher-level now. It’s so much fun, and it’s much more interesting to come to work and play hockey, win some games and just be around the team.”
Bobrovsky’s mind and body were at war with each other last year. Mental struggles led to pressure, which led to a more desperate and reckless style, which increased his likelihood of injury. Now he’s reversed the cycle. He’s limber. He’s happy. He’s not trying to be superhuman anymore and, ironically, it’s made his numbers just that.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin