How much can one reasonably expect from a goaltender when playing him almost nightly behind a worn down, somewhat-ramshackle NHL defense? If you live in Philadelphia, the answer may be to simply look at his cap hit for your answer.
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk regarding Ilya Bryzgalov and how well he “should” be playing based on his AAV of $5.67 million. In a lot of ways, it’s a reliable fallback story for a season full of nearly regular Jekyll-and-Hyde nights where serious hockey analysis of defensive breakdowns and failed offensive forays will bore and confuse the average fan. Goalie stories in Philly draw people in. It’s that ritual we seemingly long for, that warming glow that breaks the winter thaw in Flyers country. And what do we do when we don’t have a real controversy? We struggle to define ourselves and fight to identify the real issues currently hurting the team. Eventually frustrated, we revert to creating goalie controversy.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen the Tweets, the headlines, the analysis and all of the other insight into the Flyers’ goaltending. When you take a step back and objectively look at what this Flyers team has in terms of talent that’s not injured and the goaltending talent that they can actually put on the ice, though, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not Ilya’s issue. Watching the games, he doesn’t look like he’s not trying. Rather, he looks like he’s out of energy in his less-spectacular nights. I like numbers and I’m going to walk through this somewhat pedantically, but my intent is to emphasize, not insult, so hang with me.
Let’s start with a simple number: 20
No, not Pronger. This is how many game appearances that Bryz has had this year (all starts with one pull). 20 appearances, nearly all full-game or greater (overtime, shootout).
Now for the next number: 39
This is how many days it’s taken Ilya to reach 20 appearances. That’s ever-so-slightly less than one day off between each appearance, or 3.5 games a week. Last year, when the Flyers felt more comfortable rotating the number one cop in town into the net, it took Bryz 63 days to reach this mark. Yes, he lost the starting job and, yes, he picked up the game appearance pace down the stretch when Peter Laviolette “decided” to ride the man his GM brought in, but that’s a roughly 2.3 game-per-week pace. That’s markedly different.
The ability for the body to recover gets progressively worse as the season drags on. If the goaltender continues to play, the fatigue on muscles, joints and, most underratedly, the brain compounds. NHL teams have great trainers that can work to mitigate the first two, but even the best cannot force a mind to be in the right spot night in and night out.
Having Bryzgalov play 50% more games per week than he did last year while expecting better numbers is just silly. So, put in Boucher or Leighton, right? I won’t go too far into this, but I think the number of starts they have gotten is more than indicative of what the coaching staff thinks they can offer behind this defensive corps (or corpse, if guys keep going down). The Flyers, to put it succinctly, do not have a viable NHL backup capable of handling enough load in a shortened season to reduce the weight Bryzgalov has to carry. Boosh is a great guy and Leighton has nice pads, but that will not be enough to win games. I know some out there disagree with this assessment, but there are real reasons that Boucher doesn’t stick on teams and Leighton is best suited for AHL work.
So, with that, Ilya essentially gets each start. Lavy can’t afford losses, as his job is on the line, fair or not. He will look for any chance he can to start the backup, but any time he does, there’s an understood message as to the importance of that game. It’s counterintuitive, but Lavy’s best bet may be to play a backup against a strong team to change how the team perceives the move. He has to figure something out, though, because I do not believe Bryzgalov can maintain this workload, get the Flyers into the playoffs, and then perform at a good enough clip to do any damage. I say this because, if you look at Bryz’s stats, he’s trending in the wrong direction right now, and I think the fatigue factor is real.
Let’s look at the same stats I checked two weeks ago: save percentage and GAA. For fun, I added in last year’s numbers again, and doing so reveals that these two statistical values are actually trending towards the previous-year values. In other words, through 20 games, Ilya Bryzgalov is having a nearly identical statistical season in 2012-2013 to the one he had last year. Even his average shot count is trending to be the same, as he saw 26.5 shots through the 20-appearance mark last year and 26.2 in this one.
Here’s the graph for save percentage through those 20 appearances, with the current year’s value in blue and last year’s value in red:
The data from the previous analysis through 13 games is shown up to the black line. What appeared to be a solid statistical difference at that point quickly revealed itself to be a product of small sample size. Game 14 against New Jersey, in which Bryz let up 4 goals on 18 shots, brought his save percentage to 90.7%, which was a mere 0.2% higher than the 90.5% he had through the same number of appearances last year. That, in real terms, corresponds to two additional saves in 1,000 shots. A 7-0 shutout against the Islanders in the game 15 helped him pull his save percentage higher to 91.1%, but he hasn’t been able to keep it there since.
The trend on GAA is similar, and Bryz’s year-on-year stats are once again converging, with a 2.69 GAA this year and a 2.85 GAA last year.
I had expected this type of statistical trend at the start of the season, but I did so because I expected the league to get their game shape back, not because Bryz would be run into the ground with his workload. Yes, the guys in front of him are playing the same number of games, but when fatigue gets the best of Claude Giroux or Kimmo Timonen for the night, it’s a note about TOI and how he didn’t contribute, but that’s about it. When a goaltender has a similar night, however, it can be the difference between two goals with two really nice stops and four goals, and everything is amplified from there via the post-game forensic analysis.
Last Thursday’s game against Florida was a good example. Bryz was certainly not at his sharpest and yielded a breakaway goal and a penalty shot goal on top of some others. On goal one, Bryz was off-angle, as Mueller was not where Ilya had expected him to be. Looking off of the puck prior to its being passed would’ve helped Bryz find his angle here and avoid the slight overcommitting that cost him the save, and I do think he could’ve had this one on a better night. Still, Mueller knows how to score and he’s unmarked in the slot. That’s not a place you want to put your goalie.
Goal two was Kopecky’s walking in uncontested. Prime example of a goal you’d love for Bryz to stop, but you can’t realistically fault him for letting up. Pay attention to Kopecky’s release here. It’s essentially in-stride and he’s fully loaded up on the stick. It’s not a joke of a shot by any stretch.
Goal three was Huberdeau’s nasty dangle on a penalty shot. If you want to blame the goalie, you can, but you will not be convincing me that a goalie is responsible for this, just as I’d argue on the second goal.
Goal four… This is the one that drove me nuts. Yes, it looked bad, but take a look at the screen cap below:
This is inexcusable. If you watch the video below, you’ll see Coburn and Timonen chasing into the slot and up to the hash marks, leaving Huberdeau, circled in yellow above, free at the side of the net. A key tenet of good penalty killing here is to not chase the puck. Yes, you want to be hungry for it and restrict shots from getting to the net, but on this play, Coburn’s beat to the slot and Timonen tries to do a little too much, leaving the net unguarded. They chased, in my opinion, and you never chase unless you know you’re going to get the puck. The puck finds its way, as it’s wont to do, to the open Huberdeau down low, who hacks and whacks it in the net on a broken play.
People were clamoring for Boucher to start and essentially claiming that they knew it’d be a mistake to start Bryz. As discussed previously, however, that sends the message, real or not, that the need to win the Florida game wasn’t as high as the need to win the game against Pittsburgh. The story in a lot of corners was how poorly Bryz had played, but realistically, you’d like your goalie to make the saves on goals two, three and four; you cannot expect him to bail you out on every single defensive collapse. As a goalie, of course you’ll be disappointed in not making those saves, but the fact that he was put into the positions above is enough of an insight into the defensive help he received that night.
What we’re seeing is that Bryz is being worked heavily. Excessively heavy workloads can lead to physical and mental breakdowns / lapses. Physically, Bryz worked hard to slim down over the summer and get quicker. At the start of the NHL season, that was apparent in his quickness laterally and in recovery. As he’s worn down over the past 40 days, though, his speed is slipping slightly and he’s making small mental mistakes. See the failed gut trap that led to the only goal he let up against Washington on 27 Feb:
One way or another, Bryz needs rest. Laviolette needs to get his games per week down to at most three. This means sitting him for one extra game every two weeks. If I’m Lavy, I’d start Boucher on Saturday against Ottawa. There’s a lower probability of a team letdown against the Senators since the Sens have been winning despite massive injuries, and it’s a game that’s easy for the team to get up for. If the team plays poorly or shows exhaustion, it also protects Bryz from becoming the scapegoat, as he did last week against Florida. Like him or not, he’s by far the best option, and Lavy et al need to rest him smarter than they have been thus far, or they will miss the playoffs.