Revisiting the Ilya Bryzgalov Contract with the Philadelphia Flyers

By Mark Donatiello

When the Philadelphia Flyers dumped their top-scorer and team captain in the same offseason to clear cap space for Ilya Bryzgalov, it was the biggest story of last year’s NHL offseason.  The Flyers were tangled in an embarrassing goalie carousel controversy, a dry-island drinking controversy, and tied to leadership that twice seemed to contentedly collapse in the playoffs.  Change was imminent and Ilya Bryzgalov was a confusing answer, but an answer nonetheless.  Then we found out that Ilya Bryzgalov is crazy.

The universe was “humongous big”, bears were scary, and Flyers fans took hockey way too seriously.   Inconsistency and controversial comments led to an Ilya Bryzgalov benching in the Winter Classic.  The Flyers fan base was alienated by Ilya Bryzgalov’s comments and play, and it appeared Bryzgalov’s nine-year, $51-million contract was a complete disaster.  Then came a miraculous shutout streak, and Ilya Bryzgalov’s improved play led the Flyers as they coasted to the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference with 103 points.  Bryzgalov’s regular season numbers finished in line with the rest of his career, but his volatility was disconcerting.

With Ilya Bryzgalov it seems every up has a down.  Bryz outlasted Marc-Andre Fleury in the first round of the playoffs against the loaded offense of the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Bryzgalov was mediocre, but the Flyers offense was unstoppable.  In the second round against the New Jersey Devils, Bryzgalov was relatively solid but the offense was mediocre.  The Flyers were dominated by New Jersey’s dynamic forecheck.  Ultimately, Ilya Bryzgalov wilted, and finished his first playoffs in Philadelphia with a troubling .887 saves percentage while allowing 3.46 goals per game. Those inflated numbers were far from an accurate representation of his play, but pale in comparison to the rest of the goalies of last year’s postseason.

After a confusing season, it’s hard to tell exactly what the Philadelphia Flyers have in Ilya Bryzgalov.  Jeff Carter and Mike Richards went on to win the Stanley Cup with the LA Kings, proving they might not be the postseason poison that Flyers brass suggested.  Philadelphia got younger, Claude Giroux emerged as an NHL superstar, but are the Philadelphia Flyers a better team after the series of moves that brought Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia?

This offseason has been littered with rumors of available goaltenders.  Roberto Luongo is a similarly expensive option, but his inconsistencies seem to come in the playoffs where Bryzgalov was relatively consistent despite poor numbers.  Jonathan Bernier is also available, and could be the young and talented goalie the Flyers missed out on by bringing in Ilya Bryzgalov.  Bernier is also unproven and would require a package of prospects that Bryz did not.  There were other options, but still nothing spectacular to solve the goalie woes of the Philadelphia Flyers.

In the end the Flyers have a middling goalie that they’re paying like the game’s elite.  He shows flashes of greatness just long enough to tease one of the most excitable fan bases in hockey.  Ilya Bryzgalov’s comments are confusing and lackadaisical, his play is unpredictable, and his contract is inappropriately large.  It’s impossible not to sympathize with the desperation of the organization when they acquired Bryzgalov, but his play was clearly improved by the system he played in with the Phoenix Coyotes.  The Philadelphia Flyers needed Ilya Bryzgalov, but they needed him to be the goalie he promised to be while in Phoenix and now they’re committed.

Bryzgalov’s contract is overpriced, but after adjusting to Philadelphia and having a decent playoff run it appears Bryzgalov may not be a complete mistake.  If Bryz goes on one of his incredible streaks of crazy-good hockey, Philadelphia can win the Stanley Cup with the impressive offense they’ve assembled.  Right now, however, Bryzgalov is a very regular sort of crazy and the Flyers still lack total stability in net.

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