Crashing the Crease: Has Bryzgalov Really Been Better This Season?

Ilya Bryzgalov #30 of the Philadelphia Flyers stops a shot by Chad LaRose #59 of the Carolina Hurricanes on February 2, 2013 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.The Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 5-3. Image courtesy of Elsa/Getty Images North America.

As we sit here in the midst of two days without Flyers hockey, let us take pause to reminisce about the old NHL: The forgotten, hazy days of yesteryear, in which teams had more than 21 hours between games, players skated on sharpened butter knives and, in one small corner of the league, an eccentric Russian goalie named Ilya Bryzgalov hitchhiked from Phoenix to Philadelphia and found a new providence, playing hockey for our boys in orange and black.

This was a hopeful and optimistic time, one in which that entire City of Brotherly Love ever so quietly gazed with wide eyes, hoping to see their spry new goalie return them to their former glory. A glory that their forefathers and foremothers knew so well back in the 70s, when beer was cheap(er) and pants were bell-bottomed. It wasn’t to be, though, as this new goalie played well for stretches, but was ultimately unable to carry the team past the hated Devils of New Jersey.

With that, the citizens were left to wait. One labor impasse and many podium press conferences later, NHL hockey returned and immediately got to work on a menacingly quick 48-game season. With no real training camp, little time to gel and a great deal of uncertainty lingering about personnel, the Flyers entered this shortened season with a lot of doubt.

Much of this doubt was around the capabilities of this Bryz character. Could he actually return to the numbers he posted in Phoenix? Is he capable of avoiding media controversy? Would he ultimately be bought out? After the ups and downs of 2011-2012, I’d argue that it would take more faith than reason to confidently proclaim Bryz would be okay. I fully admit that I was a detractor at many points last year, and I set some lowered expectations for him this year. A little over a quarter of the way through the season, however, my two cents is that he’s served up a healthy dose of crow to his detractors and has been a real dime in the net for the Flyguys, easily standing out as their best player. I had predicted he’d start well due to the running start he’d get from his time at home in the KHL, but his performance has exceeded even what I expected.

Perhaps one of the biggest personal frustrations I experienced with Bryz last year was his movement. At times, it seemed very clunky and slow. I cited his footwork and stick discipline as two major drawbacks to his performance. Right now, he’s on a different level than I’ve seen him in years. His lateral movement is just absolutely superb and he’s just quicker. It’s subtle, but watch him track the puck and kick the right leg out to deny Staal here:

Similarly, watch him rapidly regain his footing and fight for the rebound on this late chance from the same game:

The speed, agility and crispness with which he’s moving here is excellent. As Kevin discussed last week, his depth is nearly perfect in most situations he’s faced, which allows him to use his size correctly. In addition to that, he’s also much more upright and his center of gravity is more forward over his knees, rather than resting above his butt. These nice little components, when put together, have allowed him to attack the play and the odd rebounds with more quickness and control, which is in turn resulting in some really big saves, even off of odd bounces:

To put it succinctly, he’s a big man that’s moving like a smaller man while using his size exceedingly well, which is a fantastic thing to hear about your hometown ‘tender.

So, just how good has he been? Allow me to introduce some trends. Simple, hopefully easily understood trends, one of which shows you this year’s cumulative save percentage on a per-game basis compared with last year’s, and another one that does the same with his goals against average.

Looking at the trends and data for save percentage first, two things jumped out right away: 1) He’s been markedly more consistent, which is a real feat considering the personnel missing from the lineup on offense and defense, and 2) he’s posting a 91.3% save percentage on an average of 27.5 shots a game.

Cumulative save percentage through 13 game appearances for Bryz, 2011-12 vs 2013

The same concept, but for GAA shows the following:

Cumulative goals against average through 13 game appearances for Bryz, 2011-12 vs 2013

Even accounting for the recent Toronto nightmare (which correlated to a 71.4% save percentage and staggering 9.14 GAA), Bryz is putting up a respectable 2.49 GAA while exhibiting far less volatility.

Interesting to note is that these numbers are nearly identical to his career marks of a 91.5% save percentage and a 2.52 GAA. This is good news, because just as players who have exceptional seasons will likely revert to their norms, you also hope players with sub-par years will do the same. Of course, his detractors both in Philly and abroad will seemingly blindly point to the aforementioned game against Toronto (at least if the tone from one of my favorite Twitter accounts, @FlyersFacebook, is accurate), but I’ll likely stop listening to you if you do, simply because that was a defensive nightmare and statistical aberration. When Clark MacArthur’s uncorking uncontested one-time clappers from the slot, you know something’s wrong:

Despite the odd bad [statistical] game or the somewhat questionable goal (which all goalies let up… yes, ALL), Bryz has been nothing short of great. Again, I fully admit and argue for this while acknowledging that I was a proponent of starting Bob over Bryz by November of last year and a firm advocate for Bryz’s being bought out at season’s end prior to January 19th, 2013. As we prepare to watch the fourteenth game of the year, let’s take a moment to soak in the fact that our troubles and sub-.500 record are, for once, not due to our goaltending. Surprisingly and happily, the Flyers stand near the bottom of the Eastern Conference in spite of their goalie.

It’s early. I still expect some mid-season struggles. The key is that prior to the season, I would’ve expected them to linger and persist. After watching Bryz thus far, though, I believe he will be able to pull out of a slump should he experience one, and I do think he can maintain a plus-91% save percentage. If the average shots against stay the same and you ignore the inevitable statistical outliers (shutouts and blowouts), Bryz can carry a sub-2.50 GAA through the season. At that point, it’s all about the team’s finding the back of the net one more time a game in those tight defensive struggles, and they can suddenly compete. A Stanley Cup Final appearance seems pretty unlikely, but they can at least work their way into the playoffs and make some noise.

Not too bad of an outlook for a team riddled with injuries and patched together defensive corps that’s waiting for its best player to find his scoring touch. While that optimism of days past may not be fully justified this season, it’s not all lost, and we can thank the masked cosmonaut manning the blue paint.

Look me up on Twitter @HeyItsBrenno. Feel free to send me your comments, threats, thoughts and questions until my next installment on February 28th.