Ilya Bryzgalov was brought to Philadelphia to do the seemingly impossible: stop the “goaltending carousel” that has been the counterpoint to nearly every success the organization has had in the past two decades.
Marked by dismal lows and remarkable highs, the first few games of the 2011-2012 season kicked off seemingly well, but rapidly started losing steam. These early-season struggles persisted and eventually culminated in Bryz’s announcement of his benching at the Winter Classic, much to the delight of the Flyers coaching staff.
Goalies are notorious for being quirky and somewhat unsettling. They are typically the kind of guy that teammates can like, but never truly understand. HBO’s 24/7 provided a startling insight into exactly how much of a “goalie” our new masked man was. Following some PR intervention from management and a deliberate decision to ride our favorite Cosmonaut through thick and thin, things slowly looked to be stabilizing.
Bryzgalov was trending in the right direction in early 2012, and it really came together with an incredible stretch in March. We all remember the shutouts, the promise of future glory, the reassurance that the Renaissance was indeed upon us. Of course, as seems to be the requirement in Philly, the Universe quickly caught on to just how optimistic many of us were getting and proceeded to reel us back in through a chip fracture in Bryz’s foot.
After sitting out two games, however, he was back in net. His first game back against the Rangers was less than memorable, but he rebounded and had a solid showing against the Sabres to close out his regular season, with the Flyers using the now-departed #1 cop in town in the season finale against the Pens.
Then, the playoffs happened.
While the Pittsburgh series was exciting, it was perhaps some of the worst defensive hockey witnessed in years. Bryzgalov finished an otherwise forgettable series with a statistically dominant game six win and, suddenly, optimism was suddenly increasing, reaching school-kid-seeing-a-blizzard-forecast levels. Our well-deserved snow day seemed right around the corner: regular season brilliance against the Devils would continue, the Flyers would advance to the Conference Finals and that matchup against the Rangers would become reality.
Unfortunately, we know how it went. Bryz actually put up better numbers in the Semifinals, but his work will be forever tainted by that infamous goal he scored on himself. The series loss was not his fault alone, as he kept the Flyers in multiple games for long stretches, but he did have some goals against that were less than stellar. So with this, as quickly as it all started, the Flyers most recent playoff run fizzled as they fell in five games.
Given the chance to reflect on this spastic season, I think there were three noticeable issues / trends that came to the forefront with Bryzgalov by the end of the season: 1) his interview candor, 2) his depth in the crease and 3) his mental game.
The first, and perhaps most prominent, issue of interview candor was regularly experienced prior to his Winter Classic debacle. Bryz’s mouth seemed to be his most consistent enemy, as his stark assessments and somewhat unusual candor upset a portion of the fan base who felt he was more focused on smart sound clips than sound goaltending.
I think it’s fair to say that he came off as aloof or too much of a space cadet even for this goalie at times. Some may be aware, but this wasn’t something that came about solely due to increased media exposure in Philly. It could be argued that this seems to be a problem that has dogged him throughout his NHL career. Looking as far back as 2007, during his time in Anaheim, he managed to get himself in hot water thanks to the following insight from an interview with Sovetsky Sport:
“I got a call from the club and they told me that they see me as their number one goaltender,” he told Sovetsky Sport newspaper. “They also want to trade Giguere but no one wants him.” (TSN, Ducks’ Bryzgalov sees himself as No. 1, 15 Jul 2006)
Somewhat similarly, although much less inflammatory in nature, he followed up his first season here with an interview with SovSport’s Natalia Bragilevskaya (translated by Dmitry Chesnokov), during which he stated that he wouldn’t wish this season on an enemy. The 31-year-old’s mouth had once again earned him some time in the limelight, and it was bringing more infamy than fame.
It can’t be definitively concluded that silencing him will really solve anything, but it does certainly seem to help the fan’s perception of the man during the inevitable rough stretches of play. According to comments made by Danny Briere, it even seemed to turn his teammates more in his favor as he focused harder on his game and slightly less on how hard he could rock the mic. In a city like Philadelphia, where fans feel nearly entitled to interact and provide “feedback,” if you will, hitting mute on the issue may be the best course of action early in Bryz’s tenure.
The second issue is a little more technical than prepared talking points: his depth in the crease. Essentially, Bryzgalov plays deeper in the crease than he should be when his confidence and comfort levels are struggling. He’s neither the first nor the last goalie to experience this painful problem, but it felt more pronounced at times during the year due to his already-deep stance when he’s not doing poorly.
For any goalie, there are three key areas of positioning when in a game situation: being on-angle, being square and achieving the proper depth. Since not everyone is a goalie, I’ll provide a quick breakdown of the three.
Being on-angle is a simple concept in practice. Draw a line from the center of the net to the puck (not the shooter) and stay on that line as the play tracks east to west (side to side). There are some nuances, like baiting (deliberately being off-angle and then quickly getting back on-angle as the shot’s released) or cheating on an odd-man rush (playing off-angle and edging towards an attacking forward without the puck), but the basics are pretty straightforward. Every goalie will have his moments, but this wasn’t necessarily an issue he struggled with through the year.
Being square is even simpler to understand. If a goalie is square, he’s presenting the blocking area of his pads (front of the blocker, pocket of the glove, front of the leg pads) to an attacking shooter and trying to minimize double-coverage (i.e. not covering his pad with his blocker or similar).
A notable example of how not to do this was demonstrated by Michael Leighton in some long-forgotten overtime in game six of a series that wrapped up many, many moons ago. As with being on-angle, there are a few situations where a goalie will not want to be perfectly square (say, for rebound control on a short side attempt), but the intent is largely to be as big and square as you can. Bryz also did this relatively well through the season. His basic stance, a snapshot of which can be seen in the picture above, has his pads facing the puck and minimal, if any, wasted coverage.
As mentioned, where things got interesting for Bryz was the ever-important depth of the crease at which he was playing. This is often discussed when looking at how much a goalie challenges a shooter. The more he does so, the further away from the net he’s playing. A goalie could come out extremely far to challenge for, say, a point shot, but in doing so, he also increasingly opens himself up to the dreaded back door goal or tip in down low. In theory, a goalie will want to be at a depth that both maximizes the net he takes away and minimizes his potential for getting stranded out in no-man’s land.
With his height and frame, Bryzgalov does not typically play too far outside of his crease. His size again allows him to
retain a deeper position (closer to the net) while not getting sniped as much as a smaller goalie would. When he was struggling through his worst stretches, however, he often ended up on or near the goal line (see photo to the right), giving up a lot of net coverage likely in exchange for not feeling like he was floating out on an island.
When Bryz was on, however, he was further out towards the top of the crease, demonstrated in the photo below:
It is worthwhile noting that these pictures were selected solely for demonstrative purposes. The actual in-game situation may have dictated he be deeper in the first picture than the second. The point remains, though, that Bryz does seem to have a tendency to play closer to the depth of Felix Potvin when the going gets a little rough, and it somewhat ironically serves to make the situation worse.
And now on to point three…
A strong personal opinion of mine is that one of the best things a goalie can do is play with controlled emotion and a nearly stoic countenance. It’s fun to watch a guy like Hextall chase after players when they score, but it also can have an unnerving effect on teammates and fans. The best way to describe this is mental toughness. How does a goalie handle failure (a goal against) and how well does he rebound in a game?
When I watched Bryz’s last playoff series as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes, I was somewhat shocked to see what looked like outright dejected body language from him as the series wore on. It didn’t help that the Red Wings were outplaying his team as a whole, but I felt he was very animated in his disgust. So, upon his joining the Flyers, I was interested to see if this was an anecdotal anomaly due to a frustrating series or a real trait of his.
In short, it does seem to me that Bryz is prone to more volatility in his play than the average NHL starter. The performance swings between good and bad games are pronounced. While every goalie will obviously experience this to some degree, it may not hurt Bryz to work on enhancing his mental toughness similar to how former Flyer Robert Esche did. Obviously, I’ve never seen an NHL shot, so I don’t have the privilege of explaining how quickly that talent level can demoralize a guy, but I do think some of the best out there have shown a coolness that would serve Bryz well to emulate. If nothing else, it lets him better be the anchor in his zone and the rock for the defensive corps.
While these points may have been raised before, they’re critical to understanding some of Bryzgalov’s struggles — and more importantly — understanding how they can be corrected. It’s my humble opinion that if he were to focus on addressing the above, his game would elevate to the level he will need to be at for success in the orange and black and the tiring march that was this past season will eventually seem like a distant memory.