Is the Flyers’ big offseason investment –Ilya Bryzgalov – about to head down a familiar path in Philadelphia?
For the Philadelphia Flyers, it had been the same problem every season since the end of the Ron Hextall era over a decade ago – goaltending. The Flyers had a rotating door between the pipes, with a new goaltender practically every season, as the team settled for mediocrity instead of dishing out money to get a proven talent. It only took the front office 12 years to quiet the fans and media, signing former Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. But Bryzgalov has struggled which begs one question, is he headed down the same path as countless predecessors who tried to ignore the pressure?
General manager Paul Holmgren must have seen enough after last year’s goaltender debacle in the playoffs, as he watched coach Peter Laviolette not only start three different goaltenders, but also pull the Flyers’ starter five times in 11 games. This came just one year after Michael Leighton allowed several head-shaking goals in the Stanley Cup Finals, leading to the Chicago Blackhawks hoisting the cup.
So what did Holmgren do? He went out and signed Bryzgalov –the best available goaltender – to a nine-year, $51 million contract. It started a fire sale as the orange and black got rid of
plenty of talent to build the team around Bryzgalov. When he came to Philadelphia, he knew it would be a whole different monster as compared to his tenure in Phoenix, as the city expects a great deal from his position – a position that comes with the most pressure of any of the city’s sports.
And it all started off well. The fans were happy. The media wasn’t even talking about a goaltending issue. Life was good. But then suddenly it all went downhill for Bryzgalov.
The Flyers’ netminder won his first three games with his new team but has since gone 1-4 with a 4.22 goals against average including the worst loss, a 9-8 scoring frenzy against the Winnipeg Jets. Bryzgalov was visibly frustrated during the contest, allowing four goals on 10 shots but it was his remarks after that opened the door to what could be the makings of another Flyers goaltending controversy.
“I have zero confidence in myself right now,” he said after the loss. “I’m terrible. I want to apologize to the fans and my teammates. I don’t know what’s going on. I have no answer for you guys. I feel like I’m lost in the woods. I am totally lost. I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t stop the puck. It’s that simple. It’s me.”
Bryzgalov’s statement was a bombshell that surprised the organization and fans alike, especially because it came in the month of October, since the Flyers don’t usually have these kinds of issues until at least December. No need to worry just yet, though.
One reason for the poor play could be the absence of defenseman Chris Pronger. The Flyers look like a completely different team when Pronger is out of the lineup, as the team captain brings a lot to the table. The defense has played poorly because of it and despite the fact that many of the goals were not Bryzgalov’s fault, the goaltender always seems to be the scapegoat.
However the $51 million-man bounced back over the weekend giving up just one goal in a 5-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes. After the game, Bryzgalov joked that he had gotten out of the woods thanks to “the iPhone Compass.” The Flyers decided to quiet the netminder by informing the media that he would only be available to speak after games he started but has since backed down from the threat since the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association decided to get involved.
So now the position of goaltender, which the Flyers thought would no longer be a hot-button topic, has become a hot-button topic, bringing flashbacks of John Vanbiesbrouck, Jeff Hackett and Roman Cechmanek. The fans have been burned so many times that they seem ready to pounce on Bryzgalov the second things begin to go awry. Bumps in the road were expected on the ice, but no one could have predicted the Flyers’ goaltender would get unhinged so quickly off the ice, thanks to his mouth.
Now that the first hiccup is out of the way, he looks to continue to get back on track and prove to Philadelphia that he was worth the money. Or will it simply become the same old storyline for the Flyers?