When Ilya Bryzgalov signed a 9 year, $51 million dollar contract on June 23, it wasn’t even the biggest Flyers news of the day. The signing of the enigmatic Flyers netminder took a backseat to the trade of Jeff Carter to Columbus and the shocking blockbuster deal that sent Flyers fan favorite and captain Mike Richards to Los Angeles in return for Wayne Simmonds, highly touted prospect Brayden Schenn, and a 2nd round draft pick in the 2012 NHL Entry draft (just recently dealt to Dallas for Nicklas Grossman).
The aftermath of the Richards and Carter trades, paired with the signings of two former Penguins, Max Talbot and Jaromir Jagr, made the Bryzgalov signing seem somewhat unnoticed. He was an upgrade from Brian Boucher, Michael Leighton, and Sergei Bobrovsky, instantly making him a fan favorite. As many Flyers and hockey fans alike are aware, the Flyers have not had a strong presence in goal since the late 80s when Ron Hextall was between the pipes. Since then we have seem numerous names come and go in Philadelphia and prevent them from bringing home a cup the Philly faithful have coveted since 1975: Biron, Niittymaki, Hackett, Esche, Cechmanek, Burke, Emery, Boucher, Vanbiesbrouck and the list goes on and on. Whether it is the pressure of playing in Philly or simply the skill level of these names, they just couldn’t seem to solidify their spots as Flyers goalies.
Bryzgalov was the biggest free agent goalie on the market this summer, and from the very start, many Flyers fans weren’t a big fan of the nine years on the contract (he is 31 years old). Bryzgalov put up staggering numbers in previous years playing back-up to J.S Giguere in Anaheim before taking the reins in Phoenix in 2007. In addition, he was a Vezina finalist in 2009-2010 when he posted a 2.29 GAA and a .920 save percentage while pitching eight shutouts.
When the Bryzgalov signing became official, many looked at the man known as “Bryz” to be the savior in Philadelphia. For the first time in a long time, words like “controversy” or “softy” wouldn’t be spoken when talking about a Flyers goalie.
Fast forward eight months; with just 24 games remaining on the Flyers schedule, this could be the most controversial Flyers goalie in history.
Since the season began steadily for Bryzgalov, it has been quite the roller coaster ride for the Flyers goalkeeper not just on the ice, but off the ice as well. Before any games were even played, one thing that beat writers and personalities around the team agreed upon was that Bryzgalov was a very quirky and likeable guy. Proof of this occurred in December during HBO’s 24/7 series in which we learned about Bryzgalov’s “hot girl husky” and his interest in the universe. In addition, when Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette named backup Sergei Bobrovsky the starter for the Winter Classic against the rival New York Rangers, Bryzgalov said to the media that at least the Flyers had a chance to win since he wasn’t playing.
In October, Bryzgalov surrendered five goals after relieving Bobrovsky in a 9-8 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. In his post-game interview, Bryzgalov said he was “lost in the woods.” He recently told the media to “leave him alone” after an impressive outing in New Jersey.
Bryzgalov was consistent for much of February before Saturday’s matinee with the Penguins in which he allowed 3 goals on 13 shots, two of them being very soft.
Again, Bryzgalov had some choice words for the media:
“You know, I think it’s an easy life when you can blame one guy…’it’s a bad goalie, it’s the goalie’s mistake.’ It’s easy to find a scapegoat. You point to one guy and say we’re always losing because we have a bad goalie, but I think it’s the wrong philosophy. I know I was frustrated in my game today and I know I have to be better and I will continue to work on this, but….I will try to find peace in my soul to play in this city.”
With yet some more interesting comments directed at the fan base and the city, someone needs to pull Bryzgalov aside and tell him he needs to zip it. It’s one thing not to perform up to par on the ice but when you start criticizing the fan base and begin to feel sorry for yourself, it’s clearly not the direction to go, especially in a city like Philadelphia. Battling with the media game after game is only going to make things worse.
Bryzgalov is the third highest paid player in the NHL this year behind Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier and neither of them are goalies. Being the highest paid goalie in the NHL, there are expectations that come with that contract. Bryzgalov doesn’t have to be the best goalie in the league but he needs to be much better than he has been. Entering play on Tuesday, Bryzgalov owns a 2.79 GAA and a .900 save percentage (good for 62nd in the league).
I do agree with the fact that Bryzgalov should not be the only player held responsible for the Flyers’ recent struggles. They have been hit hard by the injury bug and continue to play without their captain, Chris Pronger. However, when someone goes down, especially someone like Pronger, other players need to step up. With the exception of a dandy of a glove save on Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand back on opening night, there have not been many instances when Bryzgalov bails out the defense with a big save.
The Flyers defense and lineup in general, has been filled with rookies this season. Rookie defensemen Marc-Andre Bourdon and Erik Gustafsson have struggled in front of Bryzgalov and are turning the puck over more than the Flyers brass would like to see. General Manager Paul Holmgren has added two big “porch-clearing” defensemen over the last week in Nick Grossman and Pavel Kubina, hoping to limit those turnovers in front of Bryzgalov.
With about six weeks remaining in the season, Bryzgalov needs to get his head on straight or it could be yet another year in Philadelphia without hoisting Lord Stanley’s cup.
One thing that has been common for Flyers fans over the last 20 years is that during the playoffs, in a tight game, there was zero confidence in the goalie. Appearing in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, it was one of the softest goals in playoff history that Flyers goalie Michael Leighton let in off the stick of Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, breaking the hearts of all those packed inside Wells Fargo Center.
Flyers fans are used to sitting on the edge of their seat when it comes to goaltending. They will be sitting on the edge of their seats again this spring with Bryzgalov between the pipes. Bryzgalov was brought in to lift the confidence level in the Flyers goaltending; he clearly has not. Look at the bright side; at least he has eight years to fix it.