Crashing the Crease: A Better Bryz?

Bryzgalov’s on-ice displays can be a distraction. Courtesy of the National Post.

Another summer means another one of Ilya Bryzgalov’s goaltending camps in Ufa, and the quirky Flyers goaltender has taken time to speak to Sovetsky Sport’s Pavel Lysenkov. Puck Daddy’s Dmitry Chesnokov has published an early preview of this entertaining question and answer and in the midst Ilya’s sometimes cryptic answers lies a big clue as to what he may be focusing on for next season:

“But I cannot say that I have ‘sport rage’ now and the next season I will show who the real Bryzgalov is! I set certain goals for myself and I will work to reach them. Otherwise you can do so much bad if you’re filled with emotions.” – Ilya Bryzgalov

A few weeks ago here on Crashing the Crease, Justin took a look at Bryzgalov’s game, and one of the major points he cited was mental toughness. Many a Flyers fan might argue that watching a goaltender lose his cool is enjoyable. Most Philly die-hards recall with great fondness the time of Ron Hextall hacking away at opponents who happened to be in range after a questionable goal, or swinging away at Chris Chelios with abandon to avenge a teammate. But the fact of the matter is that the greater game of goaltending has moved away from these displays of outrage, especially if they smack of defeatism like Bryzgalov’s tend to. While some observers may appreciate seeing that it bothers Bryzgalov when he gives up a goal this sort of display tends not to sit well with coaches, teammates, managers, or analysts.

Goaltenders displaying outrage can be entertaining – but it can also be cause for concern. Courtesy of Bleacher Report.

There is a reason that media types will frequently mention how calm and collected some goaltenders appear to be. Marc-Andre Fleury circa 2008-2009 was noticeably composed, and it paid dividends. Jaroslav Halak’s miraculous run in 2010 saw him pulled from games after quietly shaking off multiple goals and then reinserted the next game to reestablish dominance.

This past season, a new superstar was born between the pipes as the hockey world realized how great Jonathan Quick was, as he shook off goals like this Morris dump-in from outside the red line without throwing a fit. These are but a few examples of goaltenders exhibiting strong postseason runs in which national hockey analysts remarked on how “poised,” “collected,” or “in control” these goaltenders were while on their game. A lot of that has to do with simply playing well and controlling rebounds, but keeping emotions in check is just as important to the perception of how well a goalie is playing.

Of course, displaying control is important to more critical personnel than hockey’s talking heads: it matters to a goaltender’s teammates and coaches. The goaltender stands off by himself for vast stretches of the game, and depending on the individual netminder’s level of quirkness (for Bryzgalov, this weirdness factor is exceptionally high), coaches and teammates are often left judging how well a goaltender is prepared just by watching his body language.

Warmups might portend a future performance, or apparent “sharpness” while making saves and dealing with rebounds. But when a goaltender flails his arms up in the air of smashes his stick around like Bryzgalov is known to do, there is no second guessing needed: he is clearly not happy. And a goaltender who is not happy is likely not focused.

Last season, Bryzgalov played his best hockey in March when he was taming himself both on the ice and off. Everyone around Philly remarked that Bryz had become a better teammate. But while his off-ice interviews spotlighted just how short a leash the goaltender put himself on, his on-ice behavior differed as well. During his splendid run, he tended to shake off goals much better. Rather than hang his head, throw up his arms, or smash his stick, Bryzgalov did what many young goaltenders are told by coaches in their teenage years to do: forget a goal happened as soon as it’s crossed the line, and get ready for the next draw.

Bryzgalov became less of a distraction in the post-game media scrums, but more importantly, he became less of a distraction during the games. When a goaltender appears to be calm even in spite of an embarrassing or momentum-changing goal, the players in front of him no longer need to worry about his mental state. If Bryz appears worried, the players are forced to be concerned not only about their own performance, but whether or not the opponents will get to Bryz before they have a chance to get things back in favorable terms. It saps confidence and energy from the entire team.

In March, Bryz wasn’t acting out on the ice that much and he played better, as did the players in front of him. Not only did his teammates play better in front of him, but there was a strong correlation between the reduction of Bryzgalov’s antics, and his teammates speaking up for him. Peter Laviolette noticed the change, Holmgren noticed the change, the media noticed the change, and the fans noticed the change.

There was a strong correlation between Bryzgalov reducing his antics, and his teammates speaking up for him. Courtesy of Deadspin.

After Bryzgalov came back from injury to a first round Pittsburgh series marked by the hallmark of porous defense and run-and-gun hockey, he was predictably frustrated, and the cracks in his calm appearance showed again. As soon as they did, Bryzgalov again became a talking point for fans and media despite playing pretty strongly in the second round series with New Jersey.

It is evident that Bryzgalov needs to learn to adjust his style on the ice to control how his teammates, coaches, analysts, and fans react to his displays. Ilya wears his heart on his sleeve, but in Philadelphia in particular, that sort of behavior is only likely to get him eaten alive. The good news — as evidenced by the quote from his Q&A in Sovetsky Sport — is that Bryz seems to be aware of this and is making it a focus. When he mentions his “sports rage,” the mental image of everyone’s favorite cosmonaut bashing his stick over the crossbar comes to mind instantly.

Add this to his mention of the negative effects of playing with too much emotion, it seems pretty clear that he gets it. The very fact that he is addressing this so seriously in Sovetsky Sport — where his interviews have normally been loose-lipped — belies the fact that he is aware of the issue and trying to address it.

For a goaltender, passion can be a funny thing. Not enough, and people will assume that an athlete just doesn’t seem to care. Too much, and people worry that his head is not in the game. Bryz has certainly fallen into the latter category for the last few years even going back to his time in Phoenix. But here in Philly, presentation just might be all there is separating Bryz from the role of a hero or a goat when the chips are done. Perhaps his quote in that Q&A is just another example of Bryz being Bryz and speaking in platitudes just to wax philosophical, but it seems more likely that he understands what he needs to change in order to stay on passionate Flyers fans’ good side.

That is certainly a spark of good news in a summer that has so far been lacking in it.