Big Russian Guy
In what is clearly one of the best Twitter profile descriptions ever, Igor Bobkov calls himself Big Russian Guy. Most Ontario Hockey League players describe themselves as players in the OHL, and if they have been drafted, as a prospect of their NHL team. Igor is both, as he is the number one goalie for the Kingston Frontenacs and was a 3rd round choice of the Anaheim Ducks, 76th overall, in the 2009 NHL entry draft.
After being drafted by the Ducks, Igor was drafted by the London Knights in the 2010 CHL Import draft. He spent the 2010-11 season as the backup for Michael Houser in London, and only appeared in 14 games. Statistically, he had a difficult year, as he was never given the chance to play consistently enough to develop his confidence. Coming into the 3rd period of the World Jr Championship game in January 2011, to stone the Canadians and win the gold medal for the Russians was the highlight of his season. He was named the game's first star, after only playing the third period.
At the end of last season Igor and his agent met with Knights' GM Mark Hunter to talk about Igor's future with the team. The Knights still had their number one goalie, Michael Houser coming back, leaving very few games left for a back up. The Ducks were on board with a plan to have Igor switch teams in order for him to become the number one goalie with another team. The Knights needed to find the right fit for Bobkov, as he is not only an overager, but is an Import player, as well. The Knights needed to find a trading partner who had an opening for an OA, and an Import.
On June 2, 2011, Igor was traded to Kingston for a 5th and 13th round pick in the 2012 OHL Priority Selection draft. Frontenacs' assistant coach and assistant GM, Darren Keily, indicated that because of the positive rapport that the Fronts have with not only the Knights' brass, but also with the connection with Brian Murray of the Ducks, getting the deal done was easy. Anaheim really liked the idea that Igor would not only be facing lots of shots, backstopping a young team, but also that the quality of the shots that he would face would most likely be better, at least until the young defense improved, according to Keily.
From everyone I talked to, it is clear that Igor came back from Anaheim's camp with an extremely positive attitude, telling the coaches that "he was here to play all the games, and to stop lots of pucks." Coach Keily said that it "was clear that Igor was in fantastic shape" after having trained with goaltending coach Bill Darken in London. Keily went on to say that Igor really trained hard to be in the shape he needed to be in, to "withstand the rigours of playing almost every game for the team." Clearly Igor knew what he was in for.
Igor told me that he also trained with strength and conditioning coach Tommy Caldwell, while in London this summer, as well, and that he intends to go back to London this summer and do the same, unless the Ducks tell him to go somewhere else to train. Clearly, he is a very focused young man.
I asked Igor what his first impression of the team was, and he smiled and said that when he first met the guys on the team, he asked the coaches for a roster so that he could check their ages. It was then, he said, that he really understood how young the Frontenacs truly were, and that he would most likely be a busy goalie. He said that his coaches, and teammates have been very good to him, and fans very supportive of him throughout the year.
When I asked coach Keily what kind of teammate Igor is, he said that he is an "ultimate leader with the young guys, and always encouraging." He immediately established a positive rapport with the backup goalies on the team, and is a positive influence to show the young guys how much work it takes to do well in the OHL and to potentially play at an even higher level some day. Keily went on to say that the number of times he has been "left out to dry" by his young teammates, he has never once "slammed his stick on the ice, or thrown his hands up in the air, in frustration, during a game," something that he easily could have done, especially early in the season.
When I asked Igor to talk about a highlight of his season, I expected him to indicate his incredible performance to almost singlehandedly beat his former team, the London Knights, on January 13th, or his shutout performance against the potent offense of the Oshawa Generals on Nov.11, but his answer surprised me. He said the highlight for him was his entire season, and the fact that he gave his team a chance to win most nights. He said that that was why Kingston traded for him, and that he "wanted to do that for the team."
If you just compare Igor's stats this season with some of the top OHL goaltenders, he clearly doesn't measure up, at least not on the surface. He has won only 17 of his 52 starts. His GAA average is around 3.65, and his save% is only around 0.900. His coaches, teammates and those who follow the team point to some other stats instead. One is that he has faced the most number of shots in the OHL, and has played the second most number of games and minutes, behind his former London teammate, Michael Houser. An important stat for me is that he gives up, on average, 2 goals fewer than his backups per game. His teammates have had the worst powerplay in the OHL all season, meaning that he doesn't get much in the way of goal support. Overall, the Fronts are tied with the Bulls for the second fewest goals for in the Eastern Conference, only three ahead of the Mississauga Majors.
Kingston Frontenacs made no apologies to anyone in deciding to go with a youth movement this season. They made it quite clear to anyone who was listening that in order to develop their young players, they would need to play, and that their improvement, they said, would take time. With five graduating from last year's team to play pro hockey, this season, in Erik Gudbranson (Florida, NHL), Ethan Werek (Portland, AHL), Nathan Moon, Taylor Doherty (Worchester, AHL), Philipp Grubauer (SCarolina, ECHL), they needed to try to develop their young talent.
The club decided to trade Dylan Staples, Michael Fine, Charles Sarault, Derek Froats, Ryan Spooner, Tyler Brown, and Michal Cajkovsky (to make an import spot available for Igor). Clearly what was left behind was a much younger team. In order to make the plan work for this season, they needed a veteran goalie, who could keep the young team in games. Igor has embraced this role from the start and has allowed his young teammates an opportunity to develop.
17 year old, draft eligible, Warren Steele said, in an interview earlier in the season, that with Bobkov in goal, it allows him to take more offensive chances because he knows that his goalie will bail him out, if he gets caught up ice. Alex Gudbranson, another highly rated draft eligible defenseman, has benefited from big Igor's presence, as well, because he knows that not all of his mistakes will end up in his own net, not that Alex makes many of them. He's the only plus player on the team, at +7.
Igor is a deceptively quick, athletic goalie for his size. He handles rebounds well, when he can see the initial shot, and has made some incredible saves at crucial times, to keep his team in games this year. One thing he will need to work on before making the next step in his career will be his puck handling skill. It can sometimes be an adventure when he goes behind the net to handle a shoot in. Some of his most memorable saves this season have occurred after he has mishandled, or over handled a puck behind his net.
No one would argue that Igor Bobkov has not been the Kingston Frontenacs MVP this season, as he has been a Game star in 14 games, and clearly deserved to be in some others, especially on the road, where the three stars are chosen by "homers" on most nights. He has clearly fulfilled his promise to try to "keep games close" throughout the season, with a few bumps, along the way, as clearly everyone has the odd "off night."
Coach Kiely indicated that there were more than a few "so called experts" within the OHL who were skeptical when Kingston acquired him, to say the least, that Igor could play as well as he has this season, but right from the beginning, he has worked hard in practice, done everything asked of him, been a quiet leader in the dressing room, and stopped an incredible number of pucks along the way.
Even though the Frontenacs will not be participating in this year's OHL playoffs, Big Russian Guy has made a positive impression with the Kingston Frontenacs this season. When asked what is next, Igor smiled and said that he and his agent are hoping to get a call from the Anaheim organization at the end of the Frontenacs' season. At the end of last season, Igor played in, and won, two games with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL, Anaheim's top farm team. The Crunch are not doing well this year and the playoffs seem unlikely, but they still have 25 games remaining in their regular season. Currently the Crunch have two Finnish goalies in Antero Nittymaki, and Iiro Tarkki.
Igor has signed his Entry level contract with the Ducks, so hopefully he will get his chance to make the next step in his hockey career sooner than later.