Friday, May 11, 2012

Reevaluating Ilya Bryzgalov's future in Philadelphia

Ilya Bryzgalov, the $51 million dollar man. Noted philosopher, one-time star goaltender, occasional headcase, and would-be savior of the Philadelphia Flyers. And this past season's most colossal disappointment. What's a general manager to do?

I've argued since Bryzgalov was acquired last offseason that the move was ill-fated, that the Flyers were overpaying a goaltender who had been ordinary or below-average far more often than he had been good in his time with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Recognizing that goals against average is not necessarily the best way to judge a goaltender, in his four years in Phoenix from the 2007 to 2010 seasons, Bryzgalov ranked tied for 15th, 38th, sixth, and tied for 15th again in GAA. Save percentage, in which he was ranked tied for sixth, 30th, tied for eighth, and tied for tenth, tells a slightly more positive story--but still not one of an elite goaltender.

The playoff statistics have raised an even bigger red flag. Before this season, in four playoff appearances, Bryzgalov's GAA has ballooned from 1.46, to 2.25, to 3.44, to an obscene 4.36, while his save percentage has plummeted from .944 to .922 to .906 to .879.

This year's statistics--a 2.48 GAA and .906 SV% in the regular season followed by a 3.46 GAA and .887 SV% in the playoffs--shouldn't shock anyone for their mediocrity. Those statistics basically represent exactly the type of goaltender Bryzgalov has been, and exactly the direction he's been heading, for the last several seasons.

I don't want to hear that Bryz's outstanding March, in which he went 10-2-1 with four shutouts and a 1.43 GAA to go with a .948 SV%, is a sign of his true capability. Yes, he may have that ceiling, but it's not something we can look forward to with any certainty. Kari Lehtonen put up almost exactly the same numbers in October of this season, and better statistics than Brygalov overall, and no teams are falling over themselves to award him a record contract.

And I really don't want to hear that Bryzgalov wasn't the problem in the playoffs. Had Marc-Andre Fleury been anywhere close to competent in the Pittsburgh series, the Flyers would have likely gone home earlier, and Bryzgalov would have been a rightful scapegoat.

It's not fair to pin the Devils series on Bryz. The whole team was outplayed, and Bryzgalov nearly stole a game 2 that the Flyers had no business being in. But his statistics in the Devils series, a 3.03 GAA and a .902 SV%, hardly scream "savior." Any way you slice it, it's impossible to argue that he hasn't wildly underperformed and been wildly overpaid to do so.

Unfortunately, the numbers don't even tell the full story. Rumors often swirled during his time in Phoenix that Bryzgalov was...shall we say, unpopular in the locker room. Back in November, Coyotes defenseman Adrian Aucoin made some less-than-flattering remarks about his former teammate, insinuating that he didn't always want to play for the right reasons and that he fomented animosity in the locker room.

One scene from this season's incarnation of HBO's 24/7 really stuck with me. Jaromir Jagr was sitting alone at a table eating breakfast, other teammates scattered at various other tables around the room. Bryzgalov came and sat down next to Jagr, who immediately got up and moved to another table. Jagr's face said it all. It was no joke; he was genuinely uncomfortable with having to avoid Bryzgalov.

Jagr proved to be an unbelievable teammate this season, probably more than any Flyers fan expected. The other players sang his praises, Holmgren spoke glowingly about him in his first postseason press conference, and Jagr said this Flyers team was his favorite team he's ever played on. And he was clearly uncomfortable around Bryzgalov.

After the Flyers were eliminated by the Devils, a reporter asked Kimmo Timonen what had happened on the play in which he passed the puck to Bryzgalov, who froze before shooting it off of New Jersey's David Clarkson and into his own net. Timonen simply replied, "Ask Bryz."

To see Timonen, a consummate professional, respected locker room leader, and possible candidate for the captaincy should Chris Pronger not return next year, basically throw a teammate under the bus spoke volumes.

Then Bryzgalov himself gave an interview. It was wide-ranging, unflichingly honest, and extremely telling. My favorite answer was the following, in response to a question about the "massive pressure" Bryzgalov faced in Philadelphia.
"It is difficult. Wherever you come, whatever you open — my face is everywhere. Everyone is talking about me. 'Bryzgalov played well,' 'Philadelphia won, but Bryz made a mistake again,' 'Yes, he wasn't scored against but could have been'… Guys, but who doesn't make mistakes? And how many [pucks] did I catch before then? But very few notice that. People are so concentrated on the negative that they only see the bad in me. But I think that you need to be kinder to each other."
Does that sound like someone with the mental and intestinal fortitude to play in Philadelphia? We know, for better or for worse, that athletes are under excruciating pressure in Philadelphia, more than in many other cities in the country (certainly more than in Phoenix, Arizona). The higher-profile the player's position, the higher-paid that player is, the more scrutiny they face. Bryzgalov will never escape the pressure, and I'm not sure he'll ever be able to cope with it.

So what are we left with? A goaltender trending statistically in the wrong direction and on the wrong side of 30, who has a history (and maybe a present) as a poor locker-room influence and lacks the ability to stand up to the constant pressure he's sure to face.

And oh, by the way, he's got a full no-movement clause. So, I ask again, what's a general manager to do? A buyout now would force the Flyers to pay two-thirds of the remaining value of Bryzgalov's contract over twice the remaining number of years. With $45.3 million and eight years left on Bryzgalov's contract, the Flyers would owe Bryz $30.2 million over 16 years, thereby incurring a cap hit of about $3.8 million a year during that time.

As disappointing as Bryzgalov has been, that's probably not worth it just to get rid of him. Because of the no-movement clause, the team can't stash him in the minors a la Michael Leighton. Even if they could convince Bryzgalov to accept a trade, it's unlikely that any team would be willing to deal for him with that contract.

The best-case scenario would be for the NHL's new collective bargaining agreement to include an amnesty clause, much like the NBA has implemented. That would allow the team to negotiate the same buyout with Bryzgalov, but without the attendant cap hit.

In lieu of that, we'll just have to pray for an unlikely turnaround, and unprecedented consistency from Bryzgalov. The extent of the negative effect of this deal won't be truly felt until the team has to sacrifice something else--maybe resigning one of the promising young players Holmgren has brought in, or foregoing pursuit of a big-time free agent like Ryan Suter or Shea Weber.

And that's the real tragedy of Bryzgalov. That Holmgren did a masterful job retooling this roster, a job surely worthy of some kind of official accolades, and that it all threatens to be undone by one incredibly ill-advised signing of a high-rent, high-maintenance player who doesn't give the team anything it wasn't getting from the two-headed monster of Brian Boucher and Sergei Bobrovsky, and takes a good deal off the table as well.

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