At this point, the only reason that the Philadelphia Flyers can continue to play Ilya Bryzgalov is simply from what they are paying him—they don’t want to see their $51M goalie go to waste at the end of the bench in favour of some undrafted, 23-year old Russian scrub.
But the Flyers continue to bleed losses as Bryzgalov racks up the starts. Since he took over the starting gig in Philadelphia again from Sergei Bobrovsky, the philosophical Bryzgalov, clad in vintage pads originally scheduled to be featured during the Winter Classic, has recorded three quality starts out of seven attempts, with the team going 4-2-1 in the process thanks to some strong offense.
Whatever happened in Boston on Sunday is beyond Bryzgalov’s blame, but anytime you’re looking enough to throw a five-spot on Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins is a game that you should win. While the wins and losses have come for Bryzgalov this season (his record is 18-10-4) there isn’t a long list of goaltenders that he has made more saves than: Bryzgalov’s name isn’t until the last page on the NHL.com leader-board in save percentage (.895 – tied for 63rd) and he only just made the second page in even-strength save percentage (.905 – 60th).
Sergei Bobrovsky has bested Bryzgalov so far in every measurable goaltending category. Whatever his crime was that forced Paul Holmgren to go out and open up the chequebook for the quirky Bryz, he certainly never deserved this sort of sentencing. After all, there isn’t a terrifically large list of rookie goaltenders who played 50 games, and Bob’s numbers were somewhat comparable to Henrik Lundqvist’s (although, also Steve Mason’s, which could scare anybody away).
To get the same value as Bobrovsky last season of approximately $178,000 per win (8th among starting goalies), Bryzgalov would have to be paid at $2,675,000, which is not likely.
So while the Flyers have supposedly had a question mark in goal since Ron Hextall, you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that they can’t win with what they have. Bobrovsky proved himself this season to be capable if anything, even if his playoff record doesn’t speak for that. There’s no reason he can’t be this team’s goalie going forward, particularly since his save percentage was just two points lower than Bryzgalov’s.
The major reason the Flyers decided to go after a goalie was obviously their own perception of their goaltending talent reflected public perception: the team has been without a goalie since Hextall. (Bryzgalov at least replicated one facet of Hextall’s game on Sunday)
But the big-money goaltender, however successful, is no longer a key to a team’s success. A good goalie in the short-term can now be found pumping gas for the AHL affiliate’s bus, if he’s put in the right situation. And Philly have a good team. It’s not like last season they had every element but goaltending, with their starter putting up Dwayne Roloson-esque numbers every night. They had the 9th best team goaltending at even strength last season, earning saves from Bobrovsky (.923), Boucher (.925) and even Michael Leighton (.929) in a goalie-by-committee approach.
Of the ten goalies with the top cap hits among goalies, just six are in playoff position as of Sunday night (counting Cristobal Huet’s Fribourg, who are in 2nd place in the Swiss National League A). The best goaltenders in the world right now, Tim Thomas may as well have come to Boston selling insurance with how easily the Bruins signed him post-lockout. Henrik Lundqvist was drafted in the 7th round of the 2000 draft where the more highly-regarded Rick DiPietro and Brent Krahn were taken in the first round. Mike Smith and Brian Elliott, instrumental to their teams’ successes this season, were only signed by their respective teams because they asked really nicely.
Good goaltending is fleeting and random, and usually unrepeatable. Signing goaltenders to long-term, high-salary contracts or drafting them high is a move that likely won’t succeed. This is a lesson the Flyers ought to have learned when they reached the Stanley Cup Final backstopped by Michael Leighton, who saved just over 12 shots in Carolina over a three-year period before throwing up a .916 en-route to an Eastern Conference Championship.
Of course, none of Ilya Bryzgalov being overpaid should factor into how good or bad of a goaltender he is, but 1/18th through a 9-year contract isn’t the best time for Holmgren to see that he may have made a mistake here. If it wasn’t apparent with Bobrovsky’s .930 even strength save percentage this season, perhaps it was when Milan Lucic scored on a long floater on Sunday, or perhaps when Bryzgalov completely lost sight of the puck behind the net leading to the go-ahead goal.
There’s no need for a witch-hunt, here, but this is just one of many oft-discussed transactions in the off-season that just hasn’t worked out. What makes it particularly frustrating is how economical the same team’s goaltending was just a season before. They are now paying good cash for the 7th worst goaltending in the entire NHL.