Florida Panthers: Evaluating Chris Driedger’s strong season

Chris Driedger #60 of the Florida Panthers (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Chris Driedger #60 of the Florida Panthers (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Deep under the hockey radar, Chris Driedger of the Florida Panthers quietly had a phenomenal “rookie” season behind Sergei Bobrovsky. Does he have the skill to keep it up?

And, this year’s Jordan Binnington award goes to… Florida Panthers goaltender Chris Driedger? That’s right. Having played a whopping 3 NHL games prior to this season, Driedger served as a solid backup, albeit in only 12 games, to a struggling Sergei Bobrovsky. He finished with a league-leading .938% save percentage.

Before this year, Driedger hadn’t even secured the starting spot to the Panthers’ AHL affiliate Springfield Thunderbirds. Having finally broken out of the ECHL, though, he recorded a combined .926% save percentage in 47 games with Springfield.  After Sam Montembeault kind of petered out, Dreidger established himself as the Panthers’ legit second option.

I will, at this point, admit that I have a strange fascination with him. Over the summer, the lockdown brought on levels of boredom I didn’t even know existed. And so, I did something terrible. In my free time, I sat down in front of EA Sports’ NHL 14, and manually replaced old rosters, with those of today. There’s a whole community that apparently does this, so I thought I could help out.

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Anyways, long before I lost my save file and weeks of “Work” I noticed that under the ratings database I was using, there was a missing player: Where on Earth was Chris Driedger? And so, like a glimmer of hope in hours and hours spent punching numbers into NHLView Ng, I took a bit of a break, and made my very own player rating!

I watched highlight clips of every game he was in, and chose his attributes in each category. His puck playing, his blocker, his fivehole; all the good stuff. I was just like a real life scout… for a bad sports game from 6 years ago that overwrote all of my save files.

Mostly thanks to the small sample size, Driedger ended up with an 81 overall. He seems adept at certain things, but he has one particular downside that teams haven’t really figured out yet. Whether or not he can fix this up, will determine his future in the NHL.

If here weren’t a Florida Panther, there would undoubtedly be a lot more discussion about him. And now that I am the only person in the world with Chris Driedger clips memorized in his head, we’re gonna take a closer look at what he can do.

Who is Chris Driedger?

To find the difference between good Driedger and bad Driedger, just cherry-pick his best and worst games to see what he struggles and excels at. In November, he played his first NHL game in 3 years, and was absolutely fantastic.

Against the Nashville Predators, he stopped all 27 shots to record his first ever NHL shutout. His greatest strength as a goalie, and what dragged him through 12 games as a netminder, is his vision. He is very good at following the puck.

This is easy to forget when just watching a hockey game, but a goaltender’s vision, as EA games acknowledge in their sliders, is just as important as their agility and athleticism. Goalies can do all the flopping and acrobatics they want, but bobbing their heads back and forth as they look through sticks and skates is what gives them the information they need to make a save.

A goalie’s vision is most important in high-tempo and screened situations, when their eyesight is either restricted or tested on a quick play. In the Predators game, Dreidger had to be sharp in both situations.

Here, defenseman Yannick Weber makes a quick backhand pass onto the stick of Daniel Carr , who tips it right on goal:

Driedger easily tracks down the puck, and makes the save. The rebound is whacked off the side of the net, but otherwise, he remains in a decent position. The Panthers box out, forcing Nashville back to the point to try again.

In the 2nd period, the Predators go on the powerplay. This is where a goalie’s vision is really tested, because with the extra man, Nashville has ample opportunity to stick a guy in front. Although you still want your best shooters doing the work, getting the puck to the net on the powerplay is so crucial for this reason. The goalie is a lot less likely to see.

In this case, Nick Bonino plays net nuisance, as Ryan Ellis floats one on net. It probably wasn’t the best decision in terms of shot quality, but that’s not important. Driedger never loses sight of the puck on the play, and makes the save.

Similar to someone like Curtis McElhinney, Dreidger is big enough to reliably find his way through traffic, and put his body in front of the puck when necessary. To his credit, Driedger seems to have better rebound control than this kind of decent career backup, which might give optimists more faith in his potential.

That being said, there probably is a reason he was stuck in the AHL for so long, and that can be seen in his athleticism. Even when he’s tracking the puck, and making some cool saves, the way he gets there is definitely untraditional.

Moving from side to side, he is very reliant on his size to get across the crease. It’s not entirely his fault, and he was superb in this game, but just look at his movement on this Teuvo Teravainen goal against the Hurricanes.

He clumsily steps across as Jaccob Slavin moves the puck over to Sebastian Aho, in which the latter probably had a decent opportunity to score himself. He stops the first shot, but Teravainen easily puts in the rebound. A more agile goalie might try to stick his pad out for a highlight reel save, but Driedger seems to concede it immediately.

This is where Driedger’s game can fall apart. He admirably keeps his eyes on the puck for the whole play, but in this case, it’s just not enough. It’s hard to say his lack of athleticism “Caused” the goal as opposed to the Panthers’ defensive breakdown, but it’s definitely magnified.

But you know what? There are a lot of not very athletic goalies in the NHL. If you’re big and scary, and can stop a puck, you can do the job. Driedger’s potentially fatal flaw is not here, because he actually compensates for it really well.

Driedger’s Flaw

What might actually hurt him, however, comes on the glove side. Driedger is just not good at catching pucks. When I was giving him my little NHL 14 rating, this is what stuck out most, because he just doesn’t hide it very well.

You can sort of see this in his goalie posture. He doesn’t hold his glove like someone who expects to stop a puck with it. In the picture for this page, it’s almost sideways actually. That his save percentage is as high as it is, suggests that the scout report on him is incomplete.

Combined with great shooters on the edge of the faceoff circle, this gets exposed time after time. He’s just not a very mobile shot stopper. He likes getting in front of the puck before it even gets off, and that extends to his glove.

The thing is, Driedger seems to know this. Instead of just leaving his glove side exposed, he has his own way of dealing with it. With this disadvantage, you’ll never seeing him flashing the leather just for the sake of it. Any opportunity he gets, he’ll put his whole body in front of the shot for support.

This is how a goalie with a poor glove maintains decent rebound control. He’ll constantly catch the puck on his chest, and hold it.

This does lead to situation where a somewhat slow goaltender is relying on his speed to get in front of the puck instead of making a glove save, but he’s done a great job at it so far. He’s perceptive enough to know where the puck is going, and just quick enough to make the stop.

That’s not to say he never makes a glove save. In fact, he makes some remarkably flashy ones in the Hurricanes game. It’s just that, his future is definitely going to hinge on whether his method is sustainable. There will certainly be some shots that he won’t be able to stop with his rigid glove hand.

That being said, he still has that vision, which is what separates him from a regular backup. However unorthodox, he still manages to maintain good rebound control. Thanks to his size, he is somewhat able to compensate for his shortcomings, by getting his body in front of shots when everything else fails.

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Driedger is interesting, because it is so plain to see how he could either struggle or flourish in the future. No one is a career .940 goalie, but if he can keep this up, and make his glove side a non-factor, he might see a very different role in the future.