Crashing the Crease: Shortened Season, Increased Expectations

While the sport of hockey never went anywhere, NHL hockey has returned from the great beyond for a shortened 48-game season. With the impetus to get the season started quickly and wrap up before the new Collective Bargaining Agreement can expire again (pardon my hyperbole), “camps” have opened around the league and all of those changes that happened and got lost in the 119 days of revenue sharing, make-whole and @NHLPodium are now bubbling to the surface.

Bryz looking around a screen – Image Courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Of course, being the Flyers, even a camp this short would have one requisite question to be answered: who will be the pretty ponies on our goaltending carousel this year? With the trade of Sergei Bobrovsky to Columbus, the re-signing of Michael Leighton and the reacquisition of Brian “Never Gonna Give You Up” Boucher, it’s eminently clear that the Flyers are putting all of their chips on one Ilya Bryzgalov, which is not unexpected.

Rick’s never gonna give up on Boosh, either – Image Courtesy of Source: Gf/Bauer Griffin

Given that “Leights” and “Boosh” are meant to serve as little more than relief pitchers, I’m not going to spend too much time analyzing them. Leighton is a capable backup that can cover 10 games or so to keep Bryz rested. Boosh has continually found a way to stay in the league, and for that, I’ll commend him. Put bluntly, he’s a dependable depth guy for the organization. So, now it’s time to look once again at our lead pony: Bryz.

Over the course of my short time here at Flyers Faithful, I’ve been somewhat coy on my opinion of Bryz, intimating at what I believed to be his issues while also saying I think he can play better and avoiding showing my full hand. Since the season is finally about to start, it seems appropriate to lay it all out. Bryz, in my opinion, has thus far been a low-alpha, high-beta asset for the Flyers. He is an adequately capable starter, but he didn’t put the big money numbers up enough last year, and fair or not, that’s an expectation that comes when you’re eating up 5+ million in cap space. Were his contract for $3 or 4 million, the song would sound very different. Don’t get me wrong, he did perform to expectations for some stretches, but he also exhibited a high degree of volatility, swinging from those magnificent shutouts to the nights where he looked like his feet were stuck in the concrete under the ice.

Now, to be fair, his numbers were far better after the All-Star Game and he appeared to right the ship up until his fractured foot. While I am not a fan of his style, as it’s my opinion that he doesn’t fully utilize his size or pay particular attention to stick discipline while moving, he did look better up until that injury. Upon returning, his footwork appeared somewhat tentative, and I believe that bled into his confidence, as he was too aware of himself in-game (this is bad for goalies). This festered and resulted in what we saw in the playoffs, which was flashes of brilliance followed by periods of extreme doubt.

With all that said, last season is dead and gone. Time for me to let it go. We saw the best and worst of Bryz, and we have to move forward. But what do we expect?

After watching clips of him in KHL action and reviewing his game stats, it’s not rocket science to say that Bryz’s time in Russia was not an outright success story, although not entirely his fault. The following clip is a great example of this:

CSKA, the KHL team with which he signed, already had Rastislav Stana, a very capable starter who has posted some great numbers this year (.932 save percentage and 1.87 goals-against average) and played a majority of the team’s games (more than twice the number Bryz got in). Bryz did indeed end on a nice win streak, but he also rode the pine for good amounts of time and was third in games played, statistically performing worse than his former teammate, Bobrovsky.

Ilya’s time with CSKA ended on December 30. Speculation on cause aside, the one positive that can be taken from Bryz’s time back home is that he was playing on and practicing with high-level talent. While many familiar NHL goaltenders decided to stay home or struggled to find steady work in leagues that knew they wouldn’t stick around, Bryz was staying in game shape and getting relatively regular work. This bodes well for the Flyers early in the 2013 season, as he will get out of the gates with a little more momentum than many of his counterparts. Leighton, for instance, hadn’t seen high-caliber competition prior to a charity game he played last Fall.

Successful goaltending has a lot to do with steady work and a regular routine. Because Bryz was able to secure some level of work for himself, he’s much better positioned than many of his counterparts. I expect that he’ll start the season well.

As the calendar turns from January to February, that advantage will dissipate. Being excellent athletes, it won’t take long for the rest of the goaltending crop to catch up. This is when Bryz will need to shine most. With the undertones of a potential buyout clouding his future in orange and black, he very likely understands the need for him to play up to his contract. This is also where I believe we’ll find out what Bryz is really made of.

Along with the previously mentioned technical issues, I’ve also noted numerous occasions where Bryz’s body language gave off that lethal “I quit” vibe. It may just be how he is, but I saw it a good deal in his last playoff series against Detroit as a member of the Coyotes and at points with the Flyers. His mental toughness scares me more than anything else. While it’s not conclusive, his performance under pressure has not been great in recent years.

Bryz showing that bad body language – Image Courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Moving to the Flyers and starting in a new city provided a convenient backdrop for his early-season issues in 2011. I maintain, though, that he struggles somewhat with the pressure inherent to being an NHL starter. You look to your money guys, your Claude Girouxs, to come through when they’re needed most. For goalies, this typically means in the playoffs. Looking back at his past three playoff seasons, however, it can’t be said that he’s necessarily risen to the occasion:

I know. You could just as easily point to his work in Anaheim as a counterargument. The key issue is that success is determined by what you’ve done for me lately, not what you did for someone else six or seven years ago. The sample size isn’t insignificant, either. The increase in workload and game frequency (3.5 avg games / week from 3.2-something in a normal season, I believe) will help him, barring injury, but he will feel that pressure of job security as the season progresses.

Key to this whole discussion is how well the Flyers can keep him out of the media spotlight. Paul Holmgren and Ed Snider have done a great job of buoying his confidence and saying the right things publicly, but if he gets embroiled in any media battles as he seems wont to do, it could get messy. Part of the issue is that Bryz is sometimes his own worst enemy, saying too much or sending the wrong message. He’s a bright guy, so I hesitate to say it’s a translation issue or poor choice of words. He says what he says with pretty clear intent, but the longer he can maintain his silence, the better off he’ll be. I just don’t know how well he’ll be able to stay quiet.

Everything considered, I expect Bryz to put up decent numbers in the regular season thanks to a strong start and a renewed focus on team defense, if Snider’s recent comments are to be believed. I’m concerned he’ll suffer a mid-season lapse due to some of the issues mentioned above and the fact that our defense just isn’t the best out there. Capable? Certainly, but it’s not just about the six guys labeled defensemen. A lot of it does have to do with the team defense concept and how well Peter Laviolette can adapt an attack-first philosophy to include a stronger emphasis on protecting the Flyers’ own house, as Snider hinted.

The real wild card for me is how Bryz finishes. I want to be optimistic and say he’ll figure it out, adapt to the city and be the man, but my gut feel isn’t so strong on that, especially in such a strong division as the Flyers find themselves in and the number of games they’ll play against the Rangers. Remember, they haven’t beaten the Rangers since Chris Pronger took up residence on the LTIR, and the Flyers haven’t added a presence even remotely close to Mr. Pronger. All things considered, my outlook for the Flyers netminding situation isn’t much better than in years past. Bryz should do better than last year, but a .92 save percentage seems far fetched.