It just wouldn’t be Flyers hockey without a goalie controversy, would it?
Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia’s biggest offseason acquisition, may not have lost his starting role, but his somewhat inconsistent play has fans and coaches alike looking for more starts from backup Sergei Bobrovsky, who played in 54 games in 2010-11 and posted 28 wins.
Statistically, the goaltenders are similar. Bobrovsky has a 2.82 goals-against average and .905 save percentage, compared to Bryzgalov’s 2.89 GAA and .897 SV percentage. Bryzgalov has won eight of his 16 games, while Bobrovsky has won five of nine.
On the surface, it would appear that the goalies are competing on the same level, and the longer this continues, the more questions will be asked about Bryzgalov’s contract and Bobrovsky’s future with the team.
But given all the goaltending issues the Flyers have had in the last decade-and-a-half, a goalie controversy like this should be a welcome issue in the City of Brotherly Love.
Making more than four times Bobrovsky’s salary, Bryzgalov was the obvious choice as the team’s No. 1 netminder at the start of the season.
Everyone assumed Bryz would have the role all year; but we all know what happens when you assume.
Now, fans are being reminded of the fact that their messianic goaltender is still simply a goaltender capable of succumbing to the same pressure that got Boucher, Cechmanek, Niittymaki, Biron, Leighton, Boucher again and, yes, Bobrovsky.
Perhaps there is a reason Paul Holmgren chose not to trade Bobrovsky this offseason.
By keeping Bob around, Holmgren made it clear that the starting role is yet to be earned. At the moment, Bryzgalov is still the man for the job, but he cannot play as though there are no other options.
Keeping a good young goalie on the tail of a veteran starter is as effective a motivational tactic as you can utilize.
In the last three seasons, Bryzgalov has started 63, 69 and 67 games, making him one of the league’s more durable goaltenders. He was on a similar pace at the start of this season, but now it seems that he will start somewhere in the range of 55 games.
This leaves 27 games for Bob—more than enough opportunity to make a case for a starting role.
Whether he wants it or not, the resting time will do Bryzgalov well, but like most young backup goalies, Bobrovsky naturally sees the opportunity to impress when Bryzgalov is given the night off.
The fact that Bob has started one-third of the team’s games already is a sign that coach Peter Laviolette is interested to see how Bob responds to such opportunity.
Controversy or not, having a backup that is gunning for the No. 1 position is a problem any coach would welcome.
You don’t get a $51 million payday without having to give a little in return.
For Bryzgalov, the impending goalie controversy is a reminder that the dollars and cents mean nothing if you aren’t winning.
Fans and management alike may have been quick to assume that the contract would automatically dictate success between the pipes, and while Bryzgalov has not been bad, he has certainly not been $51 million good.
Bryz lucked out by being a free agent during an offseason with a weak goaltending class, forcing a team like the Flyers to overpay for his services. But now that he is (conceivably) in Philadelphia for the next nine years, he needs to play like he hasn’t gotten the big paycheck yet.
Otherwise, Paul Holmgren’s shifty maneuvering will find Bryz a new home; whether it’s in another city or simply a long stay on a cold bench.
With Bryzgalov locked up for nine years, it is clear that Bobrovsky’s time in Philadelphia is limited.
A goalie of his caliber is bound to be a starter, and even after only one season in the NHL, he is already one of the highest-paid backups in the league.
Because of the controversy that has started to brew, Bob is seeing more of the spotlight than expected. Initially, it looked like he would see limited playing time, and teams interested in him would have to focus on what he did in 2010-11.
But, again, Bob has started about one-third of Philadelphia’s games this season. He has a 5-2-1 record and a save percentage over .900. He has become more technically sound in net and still has the unrivaled reaction time that made him so impressive last year.
Other teams are seeing that Bob is no longer a rookie; he is progressing and developing, making him an increasingly more attractive option for potential suitors.
The price for Bobrovsky, and the timing of a trade, remain to be seen, but it never hurts to have a bargaining chip.
Let’s face it, no one expected Bryzgalov to ink a nine-year deal and never face the pressure that has cracked so many goalies over the years.
Sooner rather than later, the fans were bound to ask questions, criticize him as overpaid, and say the contract is too long and unmovable.
The fact that those murmurs have begun in less than two months should surprise no one.
Luckily, they’re starting small. Perhaps most of the city’s anger is directed at Andy Reid, or perhaps most of the frustration is still focused on the failure of the Four Aces in Citizens Bank Park, but Bryzgalov is dealing with his rough patch without experiencing the brunt of sports’ most notorious fanbase.
Bryzgalov’s play will improve and he now knows what he’s up against in the stands and on the streets. He will be more motivated by a fanbase that actually cares, as opposed to the palpable apathy of Glendale, AZ.
The netminder had to experience Philly firsthand to understand it. Now, his role and expectations are more clearly defined, as are the consequences of failure.
The Flyers aren’t the only team in recent memory to face a goalie controversy, and all things considered, Philly’s situation in the crease isn’t all that bad.
Take Vancouver, for example. On the surface, the goaltender issues seem similar: a starter with a huge contract feeling the heat of an up-and-comer, and room for both of them on the roster running low.
But for Vancouver backup Cory Schneider, he is going to be 26 years old in the spring and has been awaiting his opportunity for more than three years at this point.
In addition, starter Roberto Luongo not only has a mammoth contract, but questions have arisen about his ability to handle playoff pressure. Despite being Western Conference champions, the Canucks are notoriously vulnerable in the playoffs, and Luongo is a big reason why.
For the Flyers, having a backup who is still new to the NHL scene and a starter that has had limited opportunities to be tested in the playoffs is the right kind of dynamic to have in this goaltender controversy.
There is no immediate reason to question Bryzgalov’s long-term future, nor is there pressure to give the starting role to Bobrovsky or be forced to get rid of him entirely.
For all the years Flyers fans have been used to having two or more goalies who cannot get the job done, it’s a welcome issue to have two that seem like they can.