In hockey terms, the word “Philadelphia” is synonymous with the phrase “goalie controversy.”
Not since the days of Hextall have the Flyers felt comfortable in the crease, an issue that was supposed to be solved when general manager Paul Holmgren signed Phoenix netminder Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million deal.
Bryzgalov came in despite the regular-season success of Sergei Bobrovsky, who won 28 games in 54 starts as a rookie playing in North America for the first time.
Needless to say, Bryzgalov has not lived up to expectations, currently sporting a 2.99 GAA, a .895 SV percentage and playing one shaky game after another.
Bobrovsky, on the other hand, has won 11 games in 16 starts with a 2.42 GAA and a .919 SV percentage, making a strong case for the starting job before the playoffs start for the Flyers.
In fact, it would benefit the Flyers to put Bob in net sooner rather than later. While Bryzgalov is the long-term investment for the team, the remainder of this season is all about Bob.
It’s an old mantra, but it’s almost universally true.
The Flyers’ major strength this season has stemmed from the offense, scoring 3.38 goals per game despite losing major offensive threats like Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Ville Leino in the offseason and replacing them with inexperienced and still-developing players like Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn and Matt Read.
This potent offense has helped inflate Ilya Bryzgalov’s win percentage, as his 18-10-4 record is largely the result of consistent offensive contributions rather than a netminder stealing games.
And that is exactly what a playoff goaltender needs to do.
At this juncture, it is obvious that, when the offense is stifled by the toughest defenses in the league, Bryzgalov will not be able to respond and steal the team a win.
Sergei Bobrovsky offers a better chance to keep games close, which is more than enough reason to start him as games get more and more important.
The biggest reason to start Sergei Bobrovsky has less to do with the 23-year-old Russian’s abilities and more to do with those of his 31-year-old countryman.
No matter how set in stone Ilya Bryzgalov’s contract is, Paul Holmgren and head coach Peter Laviolette need to consider the short-term: Who gives the team the best chance to win a Stanley Cup this year?
Bryzgalov has been inconsistent, giving up three and four goals per game on a disturbingly regular basis and forcing his team to put up points every night.
Bryz was supposed to allow the Flyers to win low-scoring affairs; instead, the team is only succeeding because it has managed to be one of the top offensive producers in the league.
Last season, the Flyers’ early playoff exit was the result of inconsistent goaltending by Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton. If Bryzgalov looks like he’s offering nothing new, the team should give the sophomore backup a chance to redeem himself.
At 31 years old, Ilya Bryzgalov’s numbers with Phoenix are as good as the Flyers can expect them to get. The last two seasons, Bryzgalov had save percentages of .920 and .921.
With Sergei Bobrovsky’s current .919 SV percentage, his ceiling seems to be higher than Bryzgalov’s, and at 23 years old, his development is prepared to hit its stride.
Critics of Bobrovsky will point out his playoff woes, but it is rare for a goaltender not to struggle in his first playoff season, especially when the head coach switches netminders as often as Peter Laviolette did in 2010-11.
There is no reason to believe that Bob won’t make the same strides in his postseason development as he has in his regular-season form.
At this juncture, an improving Bobrovsky seems to be a better investment than Bryzgalov.
The fact of the matter is, the Flyers are stuck with Ilya Bryzgalov, for better or for worse, and Sergei Bobrovsky will be traded at some point before his contract runs out.
What the Flyers get in return is entirely up to them.
If Bob becomes the starter and continues to play, teams will feel the need to offer more to acquire him. Trading for a backup is cheap, because backups are expendable. Trading for a starter is more difficult.
In addition, if Bob keeps playing at a high level, he will attract more and more attention around the league.
Teams like the Maple Leafs, Senators, Flames and Devils have their futures to consider, and when they start thinking about their long-term goaltending options, it wouldn’t hurt for the Flyers to have some bait to hold over their opponents.
When it comes down to it, Sergei Bobrovsky is winning his games, and he is winning them in the fashion the Flyers need.
His record is impressive at 11-4-1, and he has had a save percentage over .900 percent in 14 of his 19 appearances this season. He has racked up big wins against Pittsburgh, Florida and Dallas in his rare starts against competitive teams.
Having proven himself again difficult opponents, Bob looks ready for the role of starting goaltender, however temporary it may be. With him in net, the offense can breathe a little easier, knowing it does not need to convert on every opportunity in order to win.
Come playoff time, winning will be all that matters, and it is becoming painfully clear that Bobrovsky is the goalie on the Flyers roster who can be relied upon to win games, night in and night out.