Chris Driedger
PITTSBURGH, PA – JANUARY 05: Chris Driedger #60 of the Florida Panthers defends the net during the third period against the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG PAINTS Arena on January 5, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Chris Driedger has been the feel good story for the Florida Panthers

Despite the reformatting of the NHL divisions during the 2021 season, not many people would have had the Florida Panthers making the playoffs. It looked even less likely when rumors surfaced that coach John Quenneville was unimpressed with some of his more experienced players, putting Keith Yandle with a second, bubble, group during training camp. Instead, they find themselves in a playoff place with a 13-4-4 record thanks to some above-average goaltending, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given the $10 million AAV they are paying Sergei Bobrovsky for the next six years. The problem would be Bobrovsky is not the one providing that above-average goaltending, but instead, it’s his backup Chris Driedger.

Driedger is putting up a .920SV% through 12 games with a 7-3-2 record all while earning $825k in his last year before becoming a UFA. This current save percentage puts him in the top ten of goalies with ten or more games played on the season, while his 2.40 GAA also sees him take a top-ten spot. Until Saturday evening’s 4-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, Driedger was actually in the top five of both categories and if you want to have a career year I guess the last of your contract is not a bad time to do so. But you have to ask is it a career year since through 12 games last season as a backup he ran a .938SV% and 2.05 GAA.

THE BOBROVSKY CONUNDRUM

While you could never consider a $10 million goaltender as backup, right now a case could easily be made to class Driedger as the Panthers number one. He has played the same amount of games as Bobrovsky and has been the better of the two goaltenders with it not even being close. It’s a feel-good story for a player who less than three years ago was playing in the ECHL.

Driedger was picked by the Ottawa Senators in the third round of the 2012 NHL Draft and signed his entry-level contract in 2014. Despite this, he only ever featured during three regular-season games for the Senators, all of which were as relief. His first two came as in losses to the New York Rangers in the 2014-15 season and the Montreal Canadiens in the 2015-16 season, despite Driedger not letting in a goal. Finally during the 2016-17 season against the Calgary Flames Driedger struggled, letting in four goals in relief of the injured Andrew Hammond.

A STEP BACK TO MOVE FORWARD

That was the last time Driedger played for the Senators as he played out his time between the AHL and ECHL until finally released. In July 2018, he signed an AHL contract with the Springfield Thunderbirds and his stellar performances earned a one-year two-way contract with the NHL’s Florida Panthers in February 2019. The following month he was signed to a two-year extension, finally getting a start in the major leagues in November of the same year.

Driedger didn’t disappoint as he shutout the Nashville Predators with 27 saves in a 3-0 victory. While consistency was an issue through his first six starts, he found his form near the end of the shortened 2019-20 season putting up a .945SV% in his final four starts. This carried over into the 2021 season with Driedger having a below .900SV% in only one game so far.

This has given Panthers GM Bill Zito a difficult decision to make. You didn’t sign Bobrovsky to a long-term multi-million dollar contract to play backup, but if Driedger continues to outperform the Russian goaltender you also can’t afford to lose him. The Florida Panthers play the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday evening and with their rotation, it’s likely Driedger sits this one out. However, it seems to be becoming clear Driedger is getting paid either way at the end of this season, and it’s the sort of feel-good story that the NHL should be highlighting more.

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