STAMFORD, Conn. — Spencer Knight said the open competition with Sergei Bobrovsky to be the starting goalie for the Florida Panthers is an opportunity for him to learn from the best.
“‘Bob’ was awesome to me [last season],” Knight said at the Smashfest Charity Ping-Pong Challenge on Aug. 12. “He was always really kind to me and welcoming. I would watch him … he’s someone I’ve watched on my own when I was really young. He was one of my favorite goalies to watch, so for me it’s really cool.
“I’m not really looking at it as we’re competing. I think we’re on the same page and collectively trying to do what’s best for the team and hopefully get better along the way.”
Knight, selected by the Panthers with the No. 13 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, was 4-0-0 last season with a 2.32 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in four regular-season games (three starts). The 20-year-old was 1-1 when Florida lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games during the Stanley Cup First Round. He made 36 saves in his NHL postseason debut, a 4-1 win against the Lightning in Game 5.
“I think for me the biggest thing was just going in and having fun,” Knight said. “When you’re in the moment you don’t really think, you’re just kind of going. And for me, and looking at next year, it’s good to have that experience in knowing that you’ve been there and that, going forward, you can lean on that a little bit.”
Bobrovsky was a healthy scratch for Knight’s two playoff starts; the 32-year-old completed the second season of a seven-year, $70 million contract ($10 million average annual value) he agreed to as a free agent July 1, 2019.
Panthers general manager Bill Zito praised Bobrovsky for the way he dealt with Knight starting the last two games against the Lightning.
“I thought he handled it like a professional and a friend,” Zito said. “He was supportive. But that’s how Bob is. I think to be anything less than that, he wouldn’t feel dignified and would let himself down. I think he sincerely likes ‘Spence’ and understands, ‘Hey, this is part of the game and things can change at any minute.’ I think he was fully intending on preparing himself to get back in if or when that ever happened.”
Bobrovsky, who won the Vezina Trophy as voted the best goalie in the NHL twice with the Columbus Blue Jackets (2012-13, 2016-17), was 19-8-2 with a 2.91 GAA and .906 save percentage in 31 games (30 starts) last season. In 2019-20, his first season with Florida, he was 23-19-6 with a 3.23 GAA and a .900 save percentage in 50 games (49 starts), when his GAA and save percentage were his two worst since 2011-12, when he was in his second NHL season with the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Panthers (37-14-5) finished second in the eight-team Discover Central Division last season, one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes. They were 10th in the Eastern Conference (35-26-8, .565 points percentage) in 2019-20 and lost in four games to the New York Islanders in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
“[Coach Joel Quenneville] has set the tone for every player and every position … best guys play,” Zito said. “Whoever the coaching staff feels is going to give us the best chance to win is going to play and that’s what he said from the moment I got here. We’ve embraced it and I think it’s been healthy, fair and good for the team.”
Knight made his NHL debut for the Panthers on April 20, making 33 saves in a 5-1 win against the Blue Jackets. He became the first goalie born in the 2000s to play an NHL game, and the youngest in Florida history to win one, passing Roberto Luongo (Nov. 25, 2000; 21 years, 235 days).
Luongo, a special advisor to Zito, maintains contact with the goalies during the offseason.
“One thing about Roberto that I value, that I actually cherish, is he’ll give you advice based on his own experience, but also what he’s learned from others,” Zito said. “There’s a wonderful combination of curiosity and humility that combines with his experience and intellect that’s very powerful. He’s a very smart man and very powerful when he gives advice.
“He will think about all aspects of Spencer and his development, Bob and his performance, and give his advice based not only on his own experience but what he’s learned from others.”
Even before he became Panthers GM in September 2020, Zito was privy to Knight’s development and character.
“I was in Columbus (as assistant GM in 2019), and one of the coaches at USA Hockey pulled me aside and said, ‘I need you to talk to Spencer Knight,'” Zito said. “I told him that we probably wouldn’t draft a goalie and he said, ‘Yes, but you never know … you need to talk to this kid.’
“The coach said to me, ‘I think everybody would agree that he’s the greatest leader to come through this program.’ I said, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty tall order,’ and he wasn’t cheerleading. I think as a hockey person, I appreciate Knight’s love of the game.”
Knight said he is looking forward to training camp and helping the Panthers.
“I’m going in there with an open mind this season, and whatever happens, happens,” Knight said. “You know, frankly, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be in this position if you asked me six months ago if I would be here. So I’m really just trying to enjoy it and work hard.”