The Flyers radically shifted their approach to building a hockey club this summer, and they centered this change in direction on one man: Ilya Bryzgalov, generally acknowledged as the finest goaltender available via unrestricted free agency.

Philadelphia has long been regarded as a strong club with iffy goaltenders.  In 2010 they went to the Stanley Cup Finals largely on the work of waiver-wire sensation Michael Leighton and career backup Brian Boucher.  It was just one more season of band-aids and cast-offs in net, and for the first time in more than a decade the Flyers will look at goaltending as their greatest strength rather than their Achilles’ heel.

The cost of bringing Bryzgalov aboard was tremendous.  The assets given up to Phoenix in the trade that gave the Flyers an exclusive negotiating window weren’t particularly valuable, but the impact of Bryzgalov’s nine-season contract – a pact that averages $5.67 million per season even after a couple of low-cost years were tacked on to the end – forced the Flyers into cost-cutting mode.

Jeff Carter, the club’s best goal-scorer, was dealt to Columbus for the talented but unproven Jakub Voracek and a pair of draft picks.  Mike Richards, the two-way threat who also served as the club’s captain, was sent to Los Angeles in exchange for prospect Brayden Schenn, promising Wayne Simmonds, and another draft pick.  There is a lot of talent coming back, but none capable of immediately replacing the two key figures sent away.

Naturally, there were other factors aside from the arrival of Bryzgalov that precipitated those moves.  The so-called “Dry Island” has been given a lot of attention, as have rumoured rifts in the dressing room and the often unpleasant relationship that Richards in particular had with the Philadelphia media.  Even so, there’s no doubt that the Flyers enter 2011-12 significantly weaker up front than they were in 2010-11.

The expectation is that drop-off will be mitigated to some degree by the arrivals of Voracek, Schenn, Simmonds, further growth from players like James van Riemsdyk, and the signing of Jaromir Jagr (and possibly the addition of Michael Nylander, who will attend camp on a tryout contract).  The other expectation is that the upgrade in net will also be a great help.

Certainly, Bryzgalov brings elite credentials to the Flyers.

Since the NHL lockout, Bryzgalov’s 0.916 SV% ranks him eighth (min. 100 games), tied with figures like Ryan Miller and a hair back of Niklas Backstrom and Henrik Lundqvist.  Over just the last three seasons, that same 0.916 SV% places him 10th.  Last season, Bryzgalov ranked eighth among starters.  There’s a good deal of consistency in those numbers, which place Bryzgalov as a top-10 NHL goaltender.

The problem is that the Flyers, by and large, got pretty good goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher last season.  A lack of consistency game-in and game-out cost Bobrovsky his starting job immediately when he faltered early in the playoffs, but his overall save percentage of 0.915 is in the same range as Bryzgalov’s career numbers, as was Boucher’s 0.916 SV%.  Those players faltered in the post-season, but then again so did Bryzgalov – he went 0-4 with a miserable 0.879 SV%.  I’m not inclined to harshly criticize Bryzgalov for those numbers (four games is too short a period to be basing judgement on) but neither am I inclined to dismiss the regular season results of Bobrovsky and Boucher because of their playoff struggles.

None of this is to say that Bryzgalov isn’t a much better goalie than Boucher, and probably a better one than Bobrovsky for that matter.  His career numbers are far superior to the former, and the latter is a bit of a question mark given that he’s played just a single NHL season.  Over the long haul, Bryzgalov is a good bet to outperform that duo.

Last season, though, Boucher and Bobrovsky both had good years overall and combined to give the Flyers strong regular season goaltending – nearly the same level that Bryzgalov gave the Coyotes.  Thus, while Bryzgalov is a better goaltender he’s going to be hard-pressed to improve significantly on the work of that duo last season.