It would not be Philadelphia without a goaltender controversy. Okay, maybe we do not have a goalie controversy on our hands just yet, but we do have multiple question marks surrounding the position, and that's "Philadelphia" enough.
Incumbent starter Ilya Bryzgalov, who was recently found in the woods fighting off bears with his Siberian Husky, has eight seasons left on his nine-year, $51 million contract he signed prior to last season. While I believe Bryzgalov is still an NHL caliber goaltender capable of taking a team deep into the playoffs, he is going to need a lot of help to do so. That help comes in the form of Michael Leighton, who is largely to blame for our distinct lack of a Stanley Cup in 2010.
After trading Sergei Bobrovsky to the Columbus Blue Jackets far too early in his development, in my opinion, the Flyers big splash on the first day of free agency was re-signing Leighton. Instead of letting Bobrovsky develop into the goaltender many thought he could be, they signed Bryzgalov to a massive overkill of a contract and could not let "Bob" ride the pine for just a shade under $2 million per season. Leighton may be a half-way decent goaltender who can use his size to his advantage, but why did he spend all of last season buried in the AHL while teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs were a goaltender away from being relevant? Leighton is a quad-A goalie in my eyes; he is good enough to be a starter in the minors, but cannot carry the load at the NHL level.
Bryzgalov struggled to be consistent in his first season in Philadelphia, not cracking the top twenty among qualifying goaltenders in both goals against average and save percentage (2.48 GAA, .909 SV%). He did win 33 games, good for tenth in the league, but the very overrated Marc-Andre Fleury had 42 victories with sub-par peripherals as well (2.36, .913%). Much like baseball, wins can be a product of the team around you. I will stand by my theory that Fleury would not be half as respected as he is if he was the goaltender of the Blue Jackets or Montreal Canadiens. All is not lost however, as Flyer great Bernie Parent was not a dominant goalie until his second stint in Philadelphia and Ron Hextall struggled to a 3.26 GAA and .894% in his first two seasons as a Flyer. You know this town is upside down when Roman Cechmanek has the lowest goals against average in team history, 1.96 across three seasons for those keeping score.
Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippet may be largely to thank for Bryzgalov's success in the desert. Tippet enforces a suffocating, defensive system that rarely asks his goaltender to do more than he is capable. All Bryzgalov had to do was be sound positionally and his team had a chance to win; also evident with Mike Smith for the overachieving Coyotes of last season. Peter Laviolette imposes an aggressively offensive system with an emphasis on puck pursuit and an aggressive forecheck. This system needs a very strong blue line corps and goaltender to be ultimately successful, and that's what the Flyers thought they had in Bryzgalov. Indeed, Bryz was the best goaltender on the free agent market prior to last season, but that doesn't mean you should throw a mega-deal at him.
Fast forward to this season; The Flyers only signed Leighton to a one-year pact. Couple that with the very true possibility, based on Bryz's play this season, the team can buy him out and move on from both goaltenders, and the two goalies are essentially playing for their jobs. That leads me to believe both goaltenders, especially Bryzgalov, will increase their level of play this season. I think everybody in Philadelphia, the front office included, would be ecstatic if Bryz can secure a stat line at or around a 2.30 GAA and .920%. In case Bryzgalov falters and Leighton is, well... Leighton, the Flyers re-acquired, for what seems to be the 358th time, veteran Brian Boucher. Boosh will not be pushing Bryzgalov for the starting job, nor will he be challenging Leighton as the primary backup, but the goaltending depth is so weak in this organization, Boosh will be a $50,000 insurance policy. That will be his cap hit while he is in the AHL.
The Flyers have three goaltenders this season and, realistically, none of them could end up being in Philadelphia as soon as next year. So who can fill the void that is the Flyers goal crease? The NHL salary cap will drop to roughly $64 million next season, so large-market teams like the Flyers will have some roster trimming to do. Our goaltender that makes north of $5.6 million per season may be the best place to start. Niklas Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild has a $6 million cap hit this season, but surely won't make that much going into free agency after this season. Detroit's Jimmy Howard will also be an unrestricted free agent and could be had at less than Bryzgalov, and possibly even Backstrom. Howard may be the most attractive name on the market if the Red Wings let him go. The aforementioned Mike Smith will be near the top of the UFA class, and there is always Grampa Time himself, Tim Thomas, who may or may not have voted for Romney.
There will come a day when the Flyers figure out their goalie conundrum and while Bryzgalov could be the best option, we need to let this season play out before we make any rash decisions. For the next 48 games, if nothing else, Flyer fans know they will be treated to a number of new "Bryzisms," if not a Stanley Cup, and option B ends in a parade.
Contact me at GJHall35@gmail.com and thank you for reading (again!), Gregory Hall.