By Brian Gross a.k.a. The Barback
So its hockey season in Philadelphia and we have a full-blown goalie controversy. Surprised? As a lifelong Flyers fan, my life as a hockey fan has been like the movie Groundhog Day. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov was signed over the summer to a 9 year, $51 million contract. “Bryz” was supposed to give the Flyers their first legitimate net minder since Ron Hextall’s rookie season in 1987. Thus far, he’s been a complete and utter disappointment, and is living up to his new nickname, “The Bryzaster.”
The Flyers for the most part, always put a competitive team out on the ice, but never seem to be able to get over the hump. Their Achilles’ heel for the last 25 years has been the goalie position. I still to this day have nightmares of Claude Lemieux scoring from the blue line on Ron Hextall in the 1995 Eastern Conference finals. From Dominic Rousell, to Roman Cechmanek, to Robert Esche, the Flyers haven’t had that championship caliber goalie, one that’s capable of stealing games, or making that game changing save. For a team that won back to back Stanley Cups on the backbone of one of the greatest goalies to ever play the game, it’s surprising that they have historically put such little emphasis on the position. There has been an absolute failure to draft and develop a goalie, or even find one through free agency or a trade. After last year’s goalie carousel, team chairman Ed Snider instructed General Manager Paul Holmgren to upgrade the position, and that’s exactly what he did. Or so we thought.
Before arriving in Philadelphia, Ilya Bryzgalov was an all-world goalie. He certainly came with the credentials. He won a Stanley Cup backing up J.S. Giguere in Anaheim, and was solid when he had to fill in for Giguere, even recording 3 straight shutouts in the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The following year he ended up in Phoenix, and blossomed as the starting goaltender. For four seasons, he was the only bright spot on an otherwise outclassed Phoenix squad. His best season came in the 2009-2010 season when he finished 5th in voting for the Hart Trophy, given to the leagues M.V.P. To put things in perspective, Bryzgalov had 10 shutouts last season. The Flyers had 0. He was the best available goalie on the market, and the Flyers pulled out all the stops to sign him, including flying him in on Ed Snider’s private jet.
So what’s gone wrong? Well, the one knock on Bryz over his career has been that he is a little “different.” Let’s not forget, this is a guy who said one of the reasons he chose to sign in Philadelphia is because the trees here remind him of Russia. Goalies typically tend to be a little odd, but Bryz is in a league of his own in that category. His teammates in Anaheim nicknamed him Borat. Having said all of that, I still think it’s too early to give up on Bryz just yet. He may be “lost in the woods” this season, but I just don’t see how you can lose elite-level talent overnight. When I watch him play, most of his problems appear to stem from being out of position, or making mental errors. The positional stuff can be fixed, it’s the mental stuff that Bryz needs to figure out. I still think Peter Laviolette’s decision to not play Bryz in the Winter Classic was a mistake, and I’m not sure he’s recovered from that embarrassment. Is there a chance that he isn’t mentally tough enough to play in a true hockey market? Sure. Is it possible that he’s checked out after signing a contract that gives him financial security for life? Sure. However, I just can’t justify bailing on a guy 41 games into a 9 year contract, who I know is capable of playing much better.
I hate making excuses, but the play in front of Bryz has been shaky at best this season as well. Bryzgalov came from a Phoenix team that didn’t have the firepower that the Flyers have, so they relied on a tight defensive system to win games. Peter Laviolette preaches a high, up tempo puck pursuit system. The Flyers high-powered offensive system does tend to give up odd-man rushes the other way, and there have been far too many breakdowns on coverage in their own zone. You will never see the Flyers trap or sit back under Laviolette. Bryz hasn’t as of yet adjusted to the new system. No team can fully recover from losing a Chris Pronger, and the rest of the blue line has suffered. The recent acquisitions of Pavel Kubina and Nicklas Grossman should help. They’re both big bodies who will block shots, and clear the crease in front of Bryz.
I’m not sure if Bryz will be able to turn things around this year. There might not be a more mental position in sports than that of a goalie, and he is completely lost right now. Whenever he puts together a strong effort, he lets in a weak goal, and his game falls apart. People point to the 9 year contract and think the Flyers are stuck with Bryz. But when have the Flyers ever not gotten out of a contract they wanted to rid themselves of? If the Flyers decide after the season they want to move on, they will find a way to either trade him, or buy him out through the rumored amnesty period that will come with the new collective bargaining agreement. I’m not so sure I’d want that though. The law of averages says he will regain form at some point.
As far as the rest of the team, The Flyers are what they are. The Flyers will never officially rebuild, so I consider this year more of a retooling season. They are a young, exciting team who works hard every night. Are they going to win a championship this year? Probably not, but they had to make moves over the summer; they needed to take a step back in order to take two steps forward. I watched a team last year that routinely took nights off. The rumored off-ice issues became a distraction. This season, the play of the 8 rookies who have been regulars has been a pleasant surprise, and offers promise for the future. A team doesn’t rebound from losing a Chris Pronger, so the defense will need to be rebuilt this summer. The goal for this year’s team should be winning a round or two in the post season so the young players can gain some invaluable experience in the playoffs. So, if the defense can be addressed, and Bryz can find the peace in his soul he says he’s looking for, the Flyers should be serious contenders again by next year.