Four games into his tenure as a Philadelphia Flyer, Ilya Bryzgalov is already a darling of the people. In fact, fans began buying up jerseys, shirts and other merchandise featuring the Russian netminder’s mug and moniker long before he stepped on the ice in South Philly.
The reason we keep seeing Bryzgalov’s face everywhere is simple: he’s becoming the face of the franchise. He is expected to end 15 years of goaltending woes.
Unfortunately, Flyers fans may be premature in their praise of Ilya Bryzgalov. This is only the beginning of the first of nine long seasons of partnership between Ilya and the Broad Street Bullies, and the honeymoon is not the goal.
The goal is the Stanley Cup.
Here are 10 reasons to question whether or not Bryzgalov can take Philly to Hockey Heaven.
Bryzgalov’s move to Philadelphia isn’t simply the first time he’s playing home games in the Eastern Time Zone; he’s also playing his first games with a truly fanatical hockey fan base rooting for him.
This was likely part of Philadelphia’s appeal for a player with such personality but that fan mentality comes with its share of pressure.
In Anaheim, Bryzgalov was a reliable backup. In Phoenix, he was a solid netminder that helped make a bad team good enough to qualify for the playoffs twice. In Philadelphia, Bryzgalov is the Messiah expected to take a great franchise to the top of the hockey world.
As if that weren’t enough, he’s also playing in the city most prepared to turn on a player for under-performing.
This culture shock has not taken effect yet, and don’t be surprised if his enthusiasm for his surroundings changes quickly once he learns what Philadelphia is all about.
Bryzgalov’s contract represented an investment in a different type of team. Paul Holmgren wanted experience and reliability in net, even at the expense of the core of his offense. The Flyers are a team built from the back forward: a big investment in goaltending and defense, at the expense of relying on a little magic on offense.
Even if Bryzgalov turns out to be the answer in net, the move means nothing if the offense is not productive enough to win hockey games in the playoffs. He won’t be shutting out the opponent every single night, and the younger, less experienced offense that appears to be unfolding in Philly is largely unproven in the playoffs.
The total restructuring of the team’s mentality to help accommodate Bryzgalov’s presence will have the Flyers playing tight, low-scoring games, and playing those types of games against some of the elite teams in the league is like playing with fire.
Let’s be honest, Ilya Bryzgalov is not going to be living paycheck-to-paycheck for quite some time. The superstar goalie signed a deal worth $51 million in all, with a heavy cap hit of $5.67 million per year, when the Flyers officially brought him on board in June.
For a team that currently has players like Scott Hartnell ($4.2 million cap hit), Matt Carle ($3.4 million), Kimmo Timonen ($6.3 million) and Danny Briere ($6.5 million) weighing down the payroll, investing almost $6 million per year in a goalie is a tough pill to swallow.
For perspective, Marc-Andre Fleury’s cap hit is $5.0 million and Martin Brodeur’s is $5.2 million. Bryzgalov will carry a higher cap hit than either of them, and while all three players have their names on the Stanley Cup, the other two did it as a starter.
Living up to the hype as a big-name, free agent goalie is tough. Living up to a $51 million payday is even tougher, and that number will be questioned until Bryzgalov wins a Cup for Philadelphia.
The dollar amount on Bryzgalov’s contract is not the only disconcerting part of the document. The deal is also nine years long, representing a longer investment in one player than the Flyers have on the current roster.
How is this security a detriment to the Flyers? It means that, if Bryzgalov does not play up to snuff, the team will suffer on multiple fronts. Not only is the team’s savior goalie a bust, but his contract will be a near-six million dollar albatross each year for nine whole years.
Anyone who needs further clarification on how risky a long-term deal with a goaltender can be need only look to the division rival New York Islanders, and the fifteen-year calamity that is Rick DiPietro.
This is not to say Bryzgalov will become DiPietro, but the Flyers have certainly put themselves in position for their own disaster if things go wrong.
As if the time and money weren’t the only things to worry about with Bryzgalov’s deal, the Russian’s apparent negotiating skills earned him a third form of security: a no-movement clause.
The no-movement clause prevents a player from being traded, waived or moved to the AHL without the approval of Bryzgalov himself, essentially meaning that the Flyers are stuck with him under almost any circumstances. There will be no way to bury his contract or move him to another team, if by some stroke of luck they found a suitor, unless Bryzgalov wanted to be traded.
Much like the salary and length of his contract, the presence of the NMC is a non-factor if Bryzgalov plays well. But nothing is guaranteed, and there is no arguing that the team did not do a stellar job of covering itself should the Bryzgalov experiment go awry.
Any Flyers fan will tell you that the most important part of goaltending is whether or not the goalie in question can handle the pressure of the playoffs. Last season the team saw Sergei Bobrovsky turn heads in the regular season, only to look shaky once the tension of the playoffs became a factor.
Hockey fans spent the summer debating what to make of Bryzgalov’s playoff performance. Some argued that his failure to win a series while in Phoenix made him the wrong man for the job in Philadelphia, while others countered that both series were against the league’s most feared playoff team, the Detroit Red Wings.
Nonetheless, questions about Bryzgalov’s playoff abilities remain. On a team that is so heavily invested in winning low-scoring games, can he keep the puck out of the net against the likes of Crosby, Ovechkin, Gaborik, Stamkos and Vanek?
Bryzgalov has not been a terrible playoff goaltender, but to assume he is destined to beat out the best in the East on his own is a major leap for the Philly faithful.
To look specifically at the numbers, Bryzgalov appears to be an above-average playoff netminder, something the Flyers should be optimistic about. His .917 SV% and 2.55 GAA are numbers that most teams would love to see from their goaltenders in the spring.
But the career numbers do not tell the whole story. Bryzgalov has played in parts of four playoff seasons. During his two years as a backup in Anaheim, his save percentage was stellar, exceeding .922% each year, with a GAA under 2.00.
In Phoenix, his sub-.900 SV% and GAA hovering near 4.00 tell an entirely different story. The confounding variables, like his limited role in Anaheim and underdog status against the Red Wings, make it harder to label anything as a trend just yet.
The stats he posted as a Coyote would be unacceptable in Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, one cannot question Bryzgalov’s role on the Flyers without comparing it to Sergei Bobrovsky’s. A year ago, Flyers fans were still learning how to pronounce Bob’s name, yet many considered him the future in net for the Flyers.
Now, that bright future seems to have been completely redirected, largely because of a complete leadership breakdown on the part of Coach Peter Laviolette, who started three different goaltenders in the Flyers’ short 2011 playoff run.
The quick turnaround from future of the team to permanent backup seems like not only an affront to Bobrovsky, but also a rash reaction from Paul Holmgren. With some coaching and technical adjustments, Bobrovsky is poised to become one of hockey’s brick walls.
It seems irrational to see so much potential in a player and not have the patience to let it develop. If Bobrovsky makes an impact elsewhere in the league in the coming years, the Flyers will feel foolish for investing so little time in getting Bob to the top.
At some point, Ilya Bryzgalov is going to lose. He is going to lose because of a bad goal, he is going to lose a few games in a row, he is going to lose to a hated rival.
In Philadelphia, that’s when the questions start, and unfortunately, they never seem to stop.
Fans will question whether or not he is living up to his contract, the media will question whether or not the Flyers can win in the playoffs behind him, and Bryzgalov himself will likely question why he wants to play for a city that can love him one night and hate him the next.
The heavy investment in Bryzgalov makes him a particularly nerve-wracking acquisition, and the city cannot help but reassess that acquisition every single night. This begs one question.
Can Bryzgalov handle all the questions?
In the end, there is only one true reason that I, as a writer and as a Flyers fan, would object to calling Bryzgalov then answer right now.
Of course the contract scares me. Of course I hated revamping the team to bring him on. Of course I wonder if Bobrovsky would be a better investment. But these factors are trivial.
The real reason I cannot call Bryzgalov the answer to the goalie problem is this: I’ve said it ten times in the last fifteen years.
Boucher was the answer. Cechmanek was the answer. Robert Esche, Marty Biron, Ray Emery and Antero Niittymaki were all the answer.
And none of them ever worked out.
So I cannot call anyone the answer to the goalie problem anymore. Not until I actually see a Flyers’ goalie hoist the Cup.
Then again, I suppose that’s exactly why Ilya wanted to come to town in the first place.