Crashing the Crease: Ilya Bryzgalov Cannot Succeed in Philadelphia

Ilya Bryzgalov lays face down on the ice after making a save against the Boston Bruins during the game on March 9, 2013 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts – Image Courtesy of Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America

This week’s Crashing the Crease comes to you with a somber tone, as the Flyers’ season appears primed to crash and burn. Some of the same wretched storylines we’re so used to being beaten over the head with are creeping into view: “Should [insert Flyers coach] be worried about his job? Who should the Flyers next goalie be? What major move will the Flyers make to fix this?”

Part of the issue, in my mind, is this overly reactive approach from the top down. Don’t get me wrong — I love and respect what Ed Snider did for the city with the Flyers and his dedication to winning. When you look at this club, though, especially in the goaltending realm, you have to wonder why they can’t get it right. Looking back, I feel that there’s a deep-seated misunderstanding of how to identify, develop and nurture goaltending talent.

As recently as two years ago with Sergei Bobrovsky, the Flyers saw raw talent and mistook that for “NHL ready.” Thrown to the wolves, Bob’s shortcomings in short-side positioning, glove-side elbow drop and stickhandling were exposed and exploited, as detailed in Kevin Appel’s article. An extraordinarily hard worker with athletic gifts and a desire to succeed, he merely needed a couple of years to work out the kinks and adapt to the North American game. Because he gave the team the best chance to win at the time, he played 54 total games while management and the coaches threw an unlimited amount of quarters into the goalie carousel, as they’ve been wont to do for the past two decades.

I don’t think it was any small secret that, after the 2010-2011 season, the Flyers were going to do everything possible to land a top-tier goalie. Ilya Bryzgalov was the closest fit. The edict was given from on high and the “choice” was thus made to chase down Bryz at seemingly any cost. The amount of money thrown at him belies the urgency with which the Flyers acted, because action is key and rebuilding is not allowed. As I’ve gone through enough history with my personal views thrown in, I’ll close the textbook. Regardless, it’s safe to say that Bryz was not a goalie who could ever realistically live up to that $5.67M cap hit.

Okay, a lot of rehashing old news. If you’ve made it this far, you’re likely wondering why I’m saying he can’t succeed. The answer is captured nearly perfectly in his courting by and eventual signing to the Flyers.

Snider has built a culture of sustained winning and done everything he could behind the scenes to ensure that culture exists after more than four decades. The expectation is that this team will be in the playoffs, will be a Cup contender, and will put asses in the seats. To maintain this culture, prices have been paid. Talent has been rushed or prematurely discarded. Drastic moves have been jammed through. The cap has been met and every available dollar has been committed to bringing game-ready talent in. Ultimately, though, a disturbing tendency to rush and remedy all ails through immediate and decisive action has kept them in the close-but-not-quite-close-enough category since the renaissance of the 1990s.

It has created an unrealistic expectation that the Flyers will win at all costs, and that almost all issues can be rectified immediately.

So, Bryzgalov is brought in after Carter and Richards were shipped out to clear space and start over. He’s signed to a ridiculous contract. He’s expected to immediately replicate and improve upon some solid numbers he posted on a defensive-minded Phoenix team. The quirky netminder will be our savior, our new Bernie Parent. He will bring us the Cup.

All of this is unrealistic, but the team, local media and the fan base perpetuated these expectations. Bryz, before ever playing a game in the orange and black, was destined to be a pariah because, to be blunt, he’s not Martin Brodeur or Patrick Roy, or even Roberto Luongo. And he’s certainly not Bernie or Pelle. A devastating injury to Chris Pronger cemented his fate, as the anchor of the Flyers blue line played what’s likely his last game ever on November 19, 2011.

Sometimes, teams do catch lightning in a bottle, but there’s usually a price to pay on the back end. The Blackhawks of 2010-11 are a prime example of this, as Stan Bowman had to make difficult financial decisions to rectify some of Dale Tallon’s work (not to throw him under the bus, as he did essentially build the Cup-winning team). After a couple of seasons, you have an elite club again with much of the core intact. The Flyers have not been so lucky, but I would argue that Bowman’s approach in rebuilding has provided a better, more sustainable club (no Huets or Campbells). In other words, Dale Tallon’s approach is not likely one to emulate.

Looking at the talent on this team, specifically on the Pronger-less back end, they are not one or two pieces away from defeating the Bruins, Devils or Canadiens. They’re limping through, trying to patch a defense together while struggling to develop a defense-first identity under Peter Laviolette, a coach who has previously thrived on an attacking, aggressive style (and has also been set up for failure by ownership / management). I can’t realistically put a timeline on when to expect a turnaround, but I don’t think it’ll be this season or next.

What does this realistically mean for our current man in the crease? In my view, it means that the ripples of discontent with his play that lap around on Twitter will build into small waves in the fan base and eventually crest in the front office, as the Flyers miss the postseason and he’s bought out. Yes, he’s been lackluster as of late. His movement’s lost that sharpness and aggressiveness it had in the first few weeks of the season. The league caught up to him, and this was to be entirely expected, as he came in game-ready from the Kontinental Hockey League while much of the rest of the league was playing pickup games or charity tournaments. Still, his defensive support is far below where it needs to be, and not just due to the defensive corps.

Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, while a member of the Phoenix Coyotes, stands for the National Anthem before Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Detroit Red Wings during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Arena on April 20, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. The Red Wings defeated the Coyotes 6-3 to win the series 4-0. – Image Courtesy of Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America

The team’s lacking identity and focus have effectively put him on an island. He’s certainly not without blame or bad goals, but he’s not the lone culprit. He will, of course, bear the brunt of the backlash, as his contract and the hype make him an easy target for lazy journalism and angry fans. The long and short of it is that Mr. Snider needs to allow for a planned rebuilding year. If he trusts Paul Holmgren, allow him the time to use his skills to assess talent, let the kids get more pro experience at the AHL/ECHL level, and develop a plan to get the team on a sustainable path. What will likely happen is, as expected, nothing like that. I fully expect another round of housecleaning, as the tail can sometimes wag the dog.

Opinion out of the way, let’s take a quick look at some oddly troubling stats for Ilya.

First up is Bryz’s 2012-2013 (blue) save percentage trend and how it compares with last year’s (red):

2012*-13 Save Percentage vs. 2011-12

After a much better start to the season, reality seems to have caught up with the Flyers netminder. He’s essentially trending identically as he did last year through the same number of games appeared in. This is likely happenstance, as it obviously isn’t apples to apples, but it’s intriguing and unsettling at the same time. Of note is that he took 82 days to reach 26 games appeared in last year compared with only 53 days to do so this year.

Going off of the apparent similarity between last year and this, I predicted Bryz’s save percentage out through the 40th game using last year’s trends. If this actually pans out a shown, he does get better after leveling out, but by slightly less than one additional save out of every 100 shots:

2012*-2013 Projected Save Percentage

Similar trends appear in looking at goals against average, which makes sense given the save percentage trend shown above and the fact that the average shot count is roughly similar (25.6 in 2011-12 vs. 25.9 in 2012-13). He’s doing slightly better, with a 2.86 GAA this year vs. 3.01 last year through 26 game appearances:

2012*-13 GAA vs. 2011-12

Extending the trend concept to predict GAA, we see his ending with a 2.65 at the 40-game mark:

2012*-2013 Projected GAA

All in all, not fantastic numbers by any stretch. At his current 3.4 games-per-week pace (compared with 2.2 through 26 games last year), we may actually see a continuation of the negative trend. It’s clear both in his interviews and his body language that the season’s frustrations are wearing on him, and given what we’ve seen of his mental fortitude, this doesn’t bode well. Regardless, when the next best options are Leighton and Boucher, you may see him eclipse the 40-game mark pretty handily and that aforementioned 3.4 may hold steady.

  • Steve Dampman

    He just doesn’t make the big saves when we need him to … that short-handed goal from Kovy was just demoralizing.

    • Justin Brennan

      Even I’ll say he looked like he expected Kovy to score before the release there. Fact is, though, even if he makes that big save, he’s got to make three or four other ridiculous ones every night just to keep them afloat. He was actually doing that early in the season, but people viewed it as what a goalie should do.

      A good game is making all the saves you should.

      A great game is making all the saves you should, plus a few you shouldn’t.

      A shutout is a great game with some extra luck.

      People expect a great game, night in and night out. It’s unrealistic, but that’s the only way the Flyers can really compete this year.

  • wheineman

    All else aside, as you stated Bryz cannot live up the the contract, and he was set up to fail in Philadelphia from the beginning. And because of that, I fully expect them to buy out his contract at the end of the season.

    If he were making the amount of money that he is worth, I would say we should just deal with it for another couple of seasons and look to bring in a young guy who can sit on the bench for a while and learn. But the fact is that he is eating up too much cap space for an average-to-sub average goalie!

    The defense sucks. No doubt about it. They are not helping him. But again I return to that cap space issue. If you are going to have a person paid to stand in the goal and take a beating every night with no chance of success, at least make sure that person is not being paid that much.

    Who will replace him? I have no idea right now. I don’t see starting goaltender ability in either Boucher or Leighton anymore. But then again, for the price, either could fill that void for a season if the Flyers accept that they need a rebuilding year. Save the cap space for the stars who need it next year?

    • Justin Brennan

      Sad, but true. When you pay rare, specialty good prices for a commodity-quality product, something’s gotta give.

      I think your last paragraph is where I’m at. If you can’t land a Bernier or someone of that ilk (really wanted Harding before he basically said he likes being a backup and then was sadly diagnosed with MS), you sit pat, tell people you have to rebuild and let them deal with the consternation it causes.

      Of course, Homer, Lavy and a few janitors would get fired for basically putting the pig out to play without any lipstick. That means we may end up with Luongo in exchange for Coots and Read or something else I really won’t like.

      I do agree wholeheartedly with the idea of allowing for a rebuilding year, though.

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