Monday, January 23, 2012

Ilya Bryzgalov Stinks but I Still Kind of Like Him

I have a confession to make: I never really wanted the Philadelphia Flyers to choose signing goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov over keeping captain Mike Richards and leading goal-scorer Jeff Carter this summer. When it happened, I actually said that if you asked me if I'd rather have Richards and Carter with second-year netminder Sergei Bobrovsky in net or Bryzgalov — the most accomplished free-agent goaltender on the market — in net and no Richards and Carter around, I'd go with the former over the latter.

The jury is still out on the offseason transactions that completely changed the face of the Flyers franchise, even though we're at the halfway point of the NHL season. It's hard to argue that the Jeff Carter trade was anything but a success for the Flyers so far, seeing as Carter has struggled with injuries and production on a dreadful Columbus team while the players the Flyers got in return for Carter have been huge contributors. Jakub Voracek has added speed and versatility, playing in all situations, while rookie Sean Couturier has been a revelation — a PK specialist who has shown offensive flair of late and maturity beyond his years.

The Richards trade unquestionably helped change the dynamic of this current team — a team that currently sits in 4th place in the East and just three points behind the Rangers for the top spot in the division and the conference. Wayne Simmonds has provided a tough, grinding work ethic and huge net presence, while Brayden Schenn, now fully recovered from early-season injury, is coming off a monster game against the Bruins Sunday and showing all the makings of a future star. Meanwhile, Richards has done pretty well for himself in LA, getting off to a quick offensive start before an injury set him back, but still producing with 14 goals and 12 assists while doing all the things for the Kings that he did here in Philadelphia. It seems to be a move that's benefited both teams, and when you combine both trades, the Flyers got younger and deeper with each move. Hard to argue with the haul they received and the production the young talent has provided already.

However, the catalyst for all of these moves has been nothing as advertised. When the Flyers signed Ilya Bryzgalov to an insanely long 9-year contract, they thought they were getting the elite goaltender they've lacked since Ron Hextall was winning the Conn Smythe as a rookie. They thought they were getting the guy who posted a goals against average of 2.55 or better every year of his career except one, the guy who had never had a save percentage worse than .906 in his entire career despite spending the majority of it playing for a mediocre to poor Phoenix team.

Instead, what the Flyers have gotten out of Bryzgalov is a career-worst season to date. While his record of 18-10-4 is quite good, his numbers tell a different story: a 2.99 goals against average and .895 save percentage. It's almost as if the Flyers are winning in spite of a their marquee goalie, not because of him.

I'll concede that Bryzgalov has been the recipient of plenty of bad luck and has unquestionably been left hung out to dry by his teammates with baffling defensive breakdowns far too often. How many times have we seen a crazy deflection or unmarked man leading to a puck behind Bryz? Still, bad breaks and bad defense can only explain so much. When you're being tabbed and paid as an elite netminder, you have to come through with some spectacular saves and steal some games, the way Martin Brodeur has for years, the way Patrick Roy and Dominic Hasek made careers doing, the way Henrik Lundqvist and Tim Thomas do nowadays. Ilya Bryzgalov has not been able to that.

Sure, he's had really, really good games here and there, had a couple of really nice stretches. But he hasn't sustained that play. On Saturday, he was brilliant against the Devils, stopping 30 shots in a 4-1 victory and coming up with some incredible saves, only to follow that up by surrendering 5 goals before looking flat-out helpless in a shootout loss to the Bruins yesterday. He simply hasn't been as advertised. If he had been, the Flyers very well may be running away with things in the Eastern Conference, considering how well they've fared as a team despite Bryzgalov's struggles and a rash of injuries (especially concussions).

The odd thing is, while I'm certainly disappointed in Bryz's play, I haven't turned on him. I don't hate him. I'm not clamoring for him to be benched and shipped out, even as the promising young Sergei Bobrovsky has far outperformed him. For whatever reason, I feel like Bryzgalov will turn things around and play the way his body of work suggests he's capable of playing. Maybe it's because of his quirky appearances on 24/7 or the way I can relate to his recent lashing out at the Philadelphia media that I'm still in his corner.

Maybe it's because I know his contract is untradeable and he won't be going anywhere for a while. Or maybe it's out of sheer hope that he'll start playing like the goalie we all expected him to be. I'm not entirely sure to be honest with you, though I do find it hard to believe he won't turn things around, even in this "miserable market for goalies."

Right now, there's no denying that Ilya Bryzgalov stinks. And yet, here I am still finding myself liking his craziness and his temper and for whatever reason, believing in him. Now I can only hope he validates my feelings with stellar play the rest of the way, even if evidence this season — and yesterday — suggests otherwise.

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