Ilya Bryzgalov on the Rebound: 10 Reasons He'll Bounce Back
So, obviously, the idea of Ilya Bryzgalov as an elite goaltender is not exactly a popular sentiment in Philadelphia (or anywhere) at the moment. And after allowing four or more goals for the fifth time in his last six appearances, fans have the right to be a little worried about their $51-million-dollar man.
But while everyone seems to be taking a doom-and-gloom perspective on the Flyers' goaltending situation, there are reasons for hope.
Ilya Bryzgalov’s season will turn around. And here’s why.
While the Flyers never officially listed any long-term injury, Kimmo Timonen reportedly suffered from a number of nagging injuries all last year. Despite the fact that he suited up for every game, and put up respectable numbers, Timonen’s level of play was well below what Flyers fans were used to. He was clearly not skating as well and, by the end of the year especially, seemed physically overmatched.
This year, Timonen’s health has returned to him.
His foot speed and overall physical game have returned and he’s making plays that he simply didn’t (or couldn't) last year. His goal-saving play against Boston typifies this change. While Timonen would’ve had the smarts to read that play last year, he would never have gotten to it. The healthy Timonen makes the highlight defensive play we saw.
Emergence of Matt Carle
Don’t let that minus stat fool you. With Chris Pronger injured, Andrej Meszaros wandering and Braydon Coburn keeping to his usual up-and-down trend, Matt Carle has stepped up in a huge way. He’s been arguably the Flyers’ best defenseman, putting up seven points while playing smart, positionally sound defense.
People may want to use his current minus-three, and that he was on for five goals against in the Jets game, as a counterpoint. However, other than losing position to Tanner Glass, Carle played his position perfectly on each of the goals.
He gets a wacky deflection off his stick, Meszaros loses his man, a lucky Glass tip-in, a goofy bounce to Nik Antropov and a Bryzgalov softie for his troubles. Only one could he really have prevented. An improved Carle helps Bryzgalov hold the fort that much more effectively.
And you can mark this down: If any Flyers’ defenseman makes the All-Star team, it will be Matt Carle.
This is probably the simplest of all the reasons: Statistically, Bryzgalov is not this bad. In his eight years in the league, he has never finished a season with:
A) A sub-.900 save percentage
B) A GAA higher than 3.00
Right now, his stats are depressed, largely due to a series of bad bounces and goofy turnovers. Statistical regression (Bryzgalov’s stats returning closer to his career averages) is bound to occur this season. It could happen in the form of a shutout streak, or a series of games allowing two or fewer goals. But it will happen.
While we’re on stats, here’s another one: In the last fifteen years, only four goalies have posted a .920 save percentage three times in a four-season span.
Those goalies: Dominik Hasek, Tim Thomas, Tomas Vokoun and Ilya Bryzgalov. All have been Olympians. Three have been Vezina Trophy finalists. None has finished a season with a sub-.900 save percentage season in their 30s. In fact, the only seasons of that kind at all between the four of them were Hasek’s second and third seasons at ages 27 and 28.
Beyond these numbers are other precedents for success, all of which preclude age as a reason for statistical downturn. Thomas won a Vezina at 36. So did Hasek after earning an astounding 11 shutouts. Vokoun had 23 shutouts in four years with a poor Florida team after his 31st birthday.
So if they can do it, why not him?
Ok, this may be a bit of judgment call. From watching him play, Ilya Bryzgalov has that rare ability to make stopping difficult shots look easy. He hasn’t necessarily been making those stops recently, but he always manages to get himself in position to make the save.
While he’s not actually making all of them right now, being in position is 90 percent of the battle. As long as he continues to put himself in position to stop those pucks, there will come a time when he makes those saves.
The “No One Believes in Me” Principle
I will admit here that I’m borrowing from someone else in using the “no one believed in us” principle. In this case, the “us” becomes “me,” but the basic idea stays the same. Ilya Bryzgalov has notoriously performed well when “no one believes” in him.
He filled in admirably for Jean-Sebastien Giguere in kicking off the Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup run with three wins over the Minnesota Wild. In 2009, after dropping six of eight decisions, and with the Coyotes in eighth place in the West and on the verge of falling out of the playoff picture, Bryzgalov reeled off eight straight victories.
For a defensively terrible Russian team at the Vancouver Olympics, Bryzgalov finished with the second-best save percentage among qualified goaltenders, just behind Ryan “The Michigan Miracle Man” Miller.
To say that no one believes in Bryzgalov right now probably isn’t too far off the mark. He certainly has a lot of people doubting his ability. That is usually just the time he turns things around.
First Is Not Worst
Despite being just 5-4-1, the Flyers have scored the first goal seven times out of 10. And while they’ve only gone 3-3-1 in those seven games, don’t expect that win percentage to stay that low. In the four years that Ilya Bryzgalov started for the Coyotes, three times they finished in the top 10 in win percentage when scoring first (and led the league in 2009-10). During that same time period, the Flyers have finished no higher than 15th in the league in win percentage, despite being a playoff team each year.
While part of that stat has to do with Phoenix’s defensive system (Minnesota regularly finishes in the top 10 for reference), systems depend on the goalie. Without Bryzgalov in Phoenix or Backstrom in Minnesota, the system would quickly fall apart. Additionally, defensive teams like Nashville, Los Angeles and New York (Rangers not Islanders) all sat outside of the top 10.
It may be a bit of a stretch to say that the Flyers will qualify for the top 10 this year in that winning percentage, but with Bryzgalov’s history of success in winning with a lead, expect at minimum an improvement from their 20th rank last year, and current 23rd rank this year.
And Bryzgalov should be at the head of that improvement.
Yes, he’s hurt.
And while he’s hurt, he doesn’t contribute a whole lot on the ice (read: nothing at all). However, once Pronger becomes healthy, expect him to assert his defensive authority on this team. As the captain of the team, Pronger is the identity of this team. With Pronger, they allowed 19 goals in eight games, a respectable 2.37 per game. Without Pronger, that number has ballooned to 14 in two games.
Expect to see some of that Pronger influence soon. He will most definitely have words for his teammates (defensemen in particular) and they will not be pleasant. Once the message gets through, and the Flyers, as a team, start giving Bryzgalov some defensive support, expect his numbers to improve. And fast.
Very Good Not Good Enough in Philly
Name the top 5 goalies in Philadelphia history.
The first three are easy. Bernie Parent. Ron Hextall. Pelle Lindbergh.
After that? Pete Peeters? Wayne Stephenson? Roman Cechmanek? Doug Favell? Bob Froese? Martin Biron?
Really, take your pick. The Flyers have never really had a goalie who would qualify as “very good.” Parent, Hextall and Lindbergh were great. The others were, at best, good to mediocre.
In 40 years, the Flyers have never had a “very good” goalie. Bryzgalov doesn’t seem likely to be the one who breaks that trend. He will either continue to crack under the pressure, or rebound to become the 4th head on the Mt. Rushmore of Flyers goalies.
All the evidence points to him being the latter. Why?
Because there really is nowhere else to go. Giving up four goals on 10 shots to a scrambling Jets team is probably as bad as things can get. I hate to say it, but I really can’t envision things going downhill from here. The only road is up.
As I’ve made the case earlier, all signs and stats point to an upturn in Bryzgalov’s play. At most, he should have one or two more mediocre games. So maybe the Flyers can just wait him out until he bounces back. But it would really help if the team decided to fight through these bad bounces and play some strong, physical defense.
Hockey is a team game. Even for goalies.