Crashing the Crease: Home Cooking

Image Courtesy of Cameron Spencer/Getty Images North America

The 2012-2013 NHL season had all the earmarks of a solid season for the league as a whole.

Last season ended in fantastic fashion for the growth of the game. The LA Kings had sparked some real interest in the game out West, even bringing to light the fact that David Beckham has been a Kings fan before it was cool [again]. People who weren’t Canadian transplants were paying attention to the sport.

The East Coast equivalent of L.A. was ready to see a return to the limelight, as the New York Rangers had effectively re-tooled and upgraded their roster. They looked primed to bring hockey to center stage in the biggest U.S. media market that’s not Los Angeles.

Heck, in a stroke of luck that’s about as probable as my winning the Mega Millions Jackpot, the Phoenix Coyotes even look like they have a real ownership group with real money to keep the team in Arizona (whether or not this is the right move is a topic for a different day).

So, because it’s the NHL, something had to go wrong to stop this sudden wave of positive energy. Luckily, every North American hockey fan’s favorite term had come back into our vernacular last summer, starting as a soft, foreboding whisper. Over the season, it grew to a loud yell, and, this past Saturday, it culminated in the deafening roar of another lockout. I’m going to assume that most of us have seen the facts and formed our own opinions by this point, so I won’t go into them, especially since this is a goalie column. The key takeaway for all to note is that, best-case scenario, we’re a couple of months from seeing game action again, and, because of this lockout, the players are no longer restricted from playing elsewhere by the contracts they’ve signed with their NHL teams.

Knowing that a quick resolution to the newest lockout was far from certain, NHL players were quietly preparing to play in other professional leagues closer to home, such as Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Thus, it wasn’t exactly a surprise when Flyers’ goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov’s signed with CSKA Moscow of the KHL this week. As detailed in Dmitry Chesnokov’s July 18th article (interview courtesy of Pavel Lysenkov), he seemed to be preparing for this reality while running his goalie camp in Ufa this summer.

What’s interesting to me isn’t that Bryz did it. It’s straightforward from that perspective. He wants to play at the highest level he can and continue to earn a paycheck, so it makes sense. What piques my interest in this situation is how the comforts of home will impact his mental game and its ongoing repair after the up-and-down season he wrapped up a few months back. Bryz acknowledged the difficulty in adjusting to the City of Brotherly Love, but also expressed his readiness to move on from it and take the next step. Still, the issues from last year seem to linger. By being removed from the confines of Philly sports stardom, though, will he be able to better repair his mental game?  I’d say yes.

Image Courtesy of Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America

I’m not the first to say it and this won’t be the last time I do it, but Bryz has exhibited some mental weakness both verbally and through body language when the going got tough here, as well as in Phoenix. He definitely suffered from his tendency to air his demons out in public. As he grew to better understand how the media worked here and how each statement was dissected into its most discrete elements, he mitigated this exposure of his psyche in interviews. In many ways, however, the short-term picture was already painted: he was a fragile goalie who struggled with confidence when confronted with failures (his body language after goals and poor save execution on routine shots gave this away to me). Fair or not, with such an established stigma in place, it would take not only a superhuman effort, but also superhuman results to get the city to forget the Ilya Bryzgalov we saw in year one. We are, after all, a city of spurned skeptics and cynics.

Coming off of a season he was personally dissatisfied with and still feeling the pressure of a city’s expectation resting on his shoulders, he was facing no small task in moving forward and achieving the stats he would want in the upcoming season. The likelihood of his posting 2010-2011 Tim Thomas numbers, aka those superhuman results he’d need to instantaneously earn a clean slate in the eyes of the average Flyers fan, was low, as it would be for most mortal men. So, with the probable scenario’s being that he’d play somewhat better than last season while not posting a 94% save percentage, I think it could be argued that he was not set up for success, even if his work merited it.

The lockout, therefore, may actually help Bryzgalov work on technical aspects of his game while not having to maintain a bulletproof facade when talking to the media or hearing the crowd’s reactions. Time away from the Philly pressure cooker should let him find enough of a comfort level to return to the NHL with a clear mind and a cleaned-up technical approach. I don’t think his mental game is quite as Humpty Dumpty as it seemed at times, but I do believe he’s got some work to do, at least when looking at the end of last season. Had the NHL season started on time, he would’ve had to drink from the fire hose coming into camp. Dealing with the subtle nuances inherent to increasing a save percentage by one or two points while also ignoring the deconstructive negative criticism waiting for each small failure is not easy when the mind is already bruised.

While a goalie will use all of the positive visualization and preparation tools he can, lingering doubt has a remarkable ability to undermine almost any amount of positive effort, especially previous failures haven’t been fully forgotten. That all said, getting away and giving himself a fresh start, even if only momentarily so, should benefit him whenever he does next don the orange and black sweater.