This week the mothership (SBNation) is taking a look at the great “What ifs” in sports history, and the Flyers sure are chalk full of them over the years. From individual games and series to players and personnel decisions, we’re taking a look at a slew of what if scenarios in Flyers history.
Next up? What if the Flyers didn’t trade for, then sign Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $42 million contract in the summer of 2011?
June 7, 2011: Flyers trade Matt Clarkson, a 2012 third-round draft pick, and future considerations to Phoenix for the rights to Bryzgalov, who then signed a nine-year, $51 million contract a few weeks later on June 23rd.
In order to breakdown the Flyers’ (and then-GM Paul Holmgren) decision to invest heavily in Bryzgalov — who was the best goaltender on the market that offseason — you have to go back a few years.
And by a few years, you have to go back to the heyday of Ron Hextall, arguably the Flyers’ last reliable and above-average goalie for any stretch of since his retirement in 1998. After Hextall the Flyers enjoyed a cavalcade of band-aid style options in net while finding inconsistent success.
There were the veteran stopgaps like John Vanbiesbrouck, Sean Burke, and Jeff Hackett, to the young guys not quite ready to sustain success like Brian Boucher and Robert Esche, and even some failed high draft picks (woof, Maxime Oulett). The organization was desperate to find a netminder equal to the task of ending a lengthy Stanley Cup drought for a franchise that saw it’s greatest success with Hall of Fame goalie Bernie Parent anchoring the crease.
But while those in the Flyers’ organization were desperate to find a goalie to stack up to what Parent and even the late Pelle Lindbergh brought to the table, one man was getting more manic about the search by the days, hours, and minutes: team owner Ed Snider.
While Snider long held a desire to end the carousel in the Flyers crease, that desire came to a fever pitch in the two playoff runs prior to the ill-fated signing of Bryzgalov. Those playoff runs included deep and talented teams that were felled in large part due to subpar goaltending, something that Snider witnessed far too often since watching Parent parade down Broad Street those many years ago.
First it was Snider watching his team return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in more than 10 years in 2010 only to watch the Flyers allow 24 goals in the six game series loss. Boucher and Michael Leighton’s journeymen magic wore off, as they combined for an .872 save percentage in the loss, eliciting painful memories of Hextall and Garth Snow flailing through their own finals nightmare more than 10 years prior. Though Antti Niemi wasn’t much better for Chicago, many felt as though even average goaltending from anyone in the Flyers crease would have been enough to push what was a close series in their favor.
In the end, for a second-straight finals, Snider watched his team have to juggle two ineffective goalies on the biggest stage in hockey.
The last straw? Snider watching a 106-point regular season team capsize in the Eastern Conference Semifinals with goalies Sergei Bobrovsky, Boucher, and Leighton playing to an .894 save percentage and a 3.19 goals-against average.
After being partly sold on the idea that a team with pedestrian goaltending could in fact win a Stanley Cup (citing the Blackhawks’ goaltending from the previous year), Snider watched Tim Thomas go on a magical run to lead the Bruins to a Cup after embarrassing the Flyers in a four-game sweep.
Snider paraded into Holmgren’s office and told him to fix the problem in goal, and for good.
Given the ultimatum from high above, Holmgren knew that the only solution was to please Snider. Bryzgalov, coming off back-to-back All-Star appearances and .920 save percentage seasons, wasn’t going to be given a large payday by the notoriously cheap Coyotes and —was in fact— looking for a massive payday himself. The free agent market wasn’t flush with ace netminders, and the Flyers’ prospect pool was barren to say the least.
With marching orders in hand, Holmgren acquired the rights to the soon-to-be 31-year-old that would alter the course of the Flyers’ history over the course of the decade.
For starters, in order to clear the space needed to sign the massive contract, Holmgren needed to move out salary —and fast.
After mid season swoon that saw the Flyers’ top young guns like Mike Richards and Jeff Carter sparring with coach Peter Laviolette over “Dry Island,” Holmgren was already poised to choose the coach over said key players. Sensing that perhaps a culture change in the locker room was already needed, it provided the backdrop that Holmgren needed to reshape the roster while adding the space needed to absorb Bryzgalov’s megadeal.
Holmgren traded Richards —then team captain— and Rob Bordson to Los Angeles on June 23rd for Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and the Kings’ 2nd round pick in 2012 NHL Draft. On the same day he dealt Carter to the Blue Jackets for Jakub Voracek and Columbus’ 1st and 3rd round picks in 2011 NHL Draft. Those picks would turn out to be Sean Couturier and Nick Cousins.
The moves paved the way not only for Bryzgalov to supposedly end the Flyers woes in the crease, but effectively handed the teams’ leadership to Chris Pronger, who was named captain. It also took Richards and Carter’s shadows away from emerging star Claude Giroux, and freed up even more cap space for Holmgren to give Giroux a new running mate in legend Jaromir Jagr, who was returning to the NHL after three seasons in the KHL in Russia.
The remake of the roster certainly made the Flyers different and perhaps thinner depth-wise, but also hinged largely on being a better team overall by virtue of the supposed upgrade in goal.
But while a solid idea in theory, Bryzgalov did not provide immediate dividends for the Flyers in net, playing to a league-average .908 save percentage in 2011-12. His 2.48 goals-against average (the same as the season before in Phoenix), was buoyed largely by the six shutouts he posted and the Flyers finished the regular season third in scoring and 21st in goal prevention or more of the same from previous iterations of inconsistent goalies.
The postseason wasn’t a different story, either. Bryzgalov posted an .887 save percentage while allowing 37 goals in 11 games as the Flyers flamed out in the second round in five games though injuries to Chris Pronger, Jagr, and a suspension of Giroux took their toll in the matchup with the Devils.
The following year in 2012-13 saw more changes to the roster as Pronger was forced to retire due to injury and Jagr wasn’t re-signed due in part to the emergence of several core young players like Couturier, Simmonds, and Schenn among others. But one constant was the man between the pipes, though he was unable to turn around his uneven first season in Philadelphia. Bryzgalov posted a save percentage of just .900 in 40 games during the lockout shortened season to go along with a 2.78 goals-against average as the Flyers missed the playoffs entirely.
Despite being just two years and a handful of games into the nine-year contract, the writing was starting to appear on the wall. Holmgren added 24-year-old former Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason to the Flyers’ crease stable in April of that season. It was an interesting low cost, high-upside addition, though curious given the amount already invested in Bryzgalov. Mason played well down the stretch, posting a .944 save percentage in seven games to close the season and give the Flyers an intriguing, low-cost option for the expected life post-Bryz world.
It’d be remiss to mention than it was far more on-ice issues with Bryz that had the Flyers eager to move on, too. From his comments about teammates in the media, to his general odd musings about coaching and personnel decisions, Holmgren and the front office had seen enough from the Bryz sideshow by the end of 2012-13.
The Flyers would waste no time using a compliance buyout on Bryzgalov on June 25th of 2013, just two years and two days after the signing. The contract —which doesn’t toll against the Flyers’ actual salary cap— is scheduled to finally come off the books on July 1st...of 2027.
So how different would things had been had the Flyers —and Holmgren— not been essentially forced into the Bryz experience in the summer of 2011? Let’s discuss.
Let’s say the Flyers never sign Bryz in the first place, meaning that the goaltenders remain Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher. Though a mitigated disaster in the 2011 playoffs (.877 SV%), there was enough evidence to suggest that Bob was at least capable of providing the 2012 team the same type of performance —if not more— they got from Bryz (.887 SV%) in the playoffs against the Penguins and Devils.
On top of that, the Flyers could still theoretically have retained Richards and Carter, though unlikely given the deteriorated relationship with Laviolette. Still, perhaps cooler heads would have prevailed if Holmgren was able to focus on building a deeper and dynamic team instead of trying to make pieces fit around a 31-year-old netminder.
Though still thin on defense, perhaps they’d have enough offense in 2011-12 to upend the Devils in what was a close series (outscored by just seven goals in five games) and advance to face the Rangers. Though they did go 0-6 against New York in the regular season. So maybe the immediate results wouldn’t have changed things all that much, but adding Bryzgalov certainly didn’t move the needle, and might have even made the Flyers worse.
Even after (likely) bowing out of the playoffs without a Cup in the summer of 2012, the Flyers still would have a largely youth-driven roster even with some aging veterans.
They’d also have avoided making another mistake in giving up on Bobrovsky too early, as the undrafted Russian would blossom in Columbus by winning the Vezina Trophy as a 24-year-old with a .932 save percentage and an immaculate 2.00 goals-against average in 2012-13. He’d go on to win another Vezina to go along with five All-Star appearances for the Blue Jackets while the Flyers spent years searching for literally the very thing that they once had sitting in their own lap.
The Flyers would alternate trips to the playoffs for the next six seasons post-Bryz, failing to make it out of the first round in any of the three trips. Though much individual success followed Bobrovsky, playoff success alluded him too as he didn’t make it out of the first round himself until his fourth go-around.
Even while Bobrovsky earned significant pay raises ($5.6 million in 2013-14 and $7.4 million a few seasons later), the Blue Jackets were paying a premium for top-flight netminding while the Flyers were given below-average goaltending at a $5.6 million cap hit and subsequently turned to Steve Mason (who wasn’t bad, .918 SV% in Philadelphia) playing behind a deteriorating team (and wasting Claude Giroux’s prime, but that’s for another day) in short order.
The money the Flyers saved against the cap with Bryzgalov making under $6 million against the cap was negated by the play they got and the other subsequent moves they made. That coupled with the fact that they missed out on five years of elite goaltending from Bobrovsky only adds insult to injury.
Even given that roster construction at the time the Flyers were staring at the decline of key contributors Daniel Briere, Scott Hartnell, and Kimmo Timonen in 2011-12 through 2012-13 in addition to the presumed loss of Pronger. Not only were some of the Flyers’ key cogs aging the wrong way, but youngsters like Schenn, and Couturier weren’t quite ready for a prime scoring load just yet. Even with Bobrovsky, Richards and Carter after an offseason miracle, it’s likely that the Flyers’ Cup window would have already been shut after losing Pronger anyways.
The Rangers were a far better team in 2011-12 and that’s even giving the Flyers a nod past a trapping and pesky Devils team that actually took down the Blueshirts. And the loaded Kings after that? Yeah, not happening. And in 2012-13 there’s no doubting that the Bruins were the class of the Eastern Conference and I don’t really see the Flyers topping that Blackhawks’ run, either.
There’s no doubt that Holmgren would have had his work cut out for him reworking the roster and navigating the salary cap in order to make the Flyers competitive to the point of being a bona-fide Stanley Cup contender, but it would have been much easier for him to do so while actually getting the above average goaltending he though he was getting in Bryzgalov.
While the Flyers aren’t likely to have a third Stanley Cup had they stayed far away from Bryz in the summer of 2011, there’s no debate that his signing set the franchise back a few years even if they did stumble upon solid goaltending from Mason for a time. We also don’t forget the lifeless body of Michal Neuvirth, the disaster that was 2018-19, and the warm body of Brian Elliott to get to the Carter Hart era.
While Bryz provided some colorful moments over his short stay in the Orange and Black, he didn’t provided them with much great goaltending —and for that we’d love a universe that includes him never coming to Philadelphia.