By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
On June 23, 2011, the Flyers signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a massive nine-year, 51 million dollar contract. On June 25, 2013, the Flyers used a compliance buyout on him. What went so wrong that the Flyers had to pull the cord seven years early? Was all the blame really on Bryzgalov?
Signing Bryzgalov was a hail Mary move from Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, doing anything he could to find a long-term solution in net, a problem that has plagued the Flyers for decades.
June, 23 2011, was a huge day in Flyers history. Trading both Mike Richards and Jeff Carter an hour before announcing they signed Ilya Bryzgalov for a massive nine-year, $51 million contract. To that point, Bryzgalov had been only barely above average in terms of his numbers for Phoenix, posting a 2.48 goals-against-average and a .921 save percentage in 2010-11. He had only slightly better numbers the year before as well. While his numbers were not jaw-dropping, he was consistent and much better than Michael Leighton or Sergei Bobrovsky at the time.
The 2011-12 season was the last time the Flyers were a ‘fun’ team to watch. Bryzgalov’s play ranged from spectacular to sub par, finishing the season with a 33-16-7 record and a .909 SV% along with a 2.48 GAA. At the beginning, the Russian goalie was a glimmer of hope for the Flyers after relying on Leighton, Brian Boucher, and Ray Emery for the previous two years. Bobrovsky was no better than Bryzgalov during his rookie campaign in 2010-11. The Flyers were in desperation mode to find some kind of solution in the blue paint.
From all reports, Bryzgalov wasn’t exactly the perfect teammate, often criticizing the team around him instead of being a ‘team effort’ kind of guy. His shenanigans on and off the ice put him in the crosshairs of the Philadelphia media. From fake sleeping on the bench, to throwing sticks and water bottles, negative comments about his playing time, to not caring if he was a Flyer or not, he sure knew how to find trouble.
It didn’t take long for Bryz to be doubting himself, saying he felt “lost in the woods” after a 9-8 loss to Winnipeg on October 27, 2011, only 10 games into the season. He proceeded to go on a hot streak winning six of his next eight. After that run, the rest of the season was a normal ebb and flow until early March.
As the calendar flipped to the penultimate month in the NHL regular season, Bryzgalov stepped up his game, posting four shutouts in a five game span and set the Flyers all-time shutout record at 249 minutes and 43 seconds. His strong effort helped Philly secure a playoff spot.
He drew a lot of attention during the Winter Classic, from his 24/7 interview about the universe to his comments regarding Bobrovsky starting the game, stating “I have great news and even better news. Okay, great news is I’m not playing, and better news is we have a chance to win the game”
The Flyers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, before losing to the Devils in the second round. Bryzgalov’s play was awful, posting a pathetic 3.46 GAA and a .887 SV% in the postseason.
After an offseason that saw Bobrovsky and James van Riemsdyk shipped out-of-town, losing Jaromir Jagr and Matt Carle to free agency and a failed offer sheet for Shea Weber, the Flyers were going into the season a much different team than the one that made the playoffs the season prior.
The lockout 2012-13 season was miserable for the Flyers. Winning just 23 of their 48 games, they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Bryzgalov was in the middle of the media witch hunt looking for a player to point the finger at. The former Anaheim Duck played 40 of the 48 games and only eight goalies saw more ice time than him. But his numbers were pedestrian at best with a 2.79 GAA and .900 SV%.
It became clear Bryzgalov was not the answer for the Flyers. Luckily, they had the CBA to help them out. The Flyers used one of their two compliance buyouts on him, thus ending his tenure in Philadephia seven years early. There’s no argument that buying him out was the right move. He was a distraction off-ice and wasn’t good enough to warrant such behavior on-ice.
It was also a delicate time for the Flyers. Their blueline was decimated by injuries during the 2012-13 season and the leadership of Claude Giroux was constantly under the microscope. Bryzgalov didn’t stand much of a chance behind such a mediocre team, but he also didn’t play his best hockey either.
On April 3, 2013, the Flyers traded for Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who played seven games for the Flyers in 2013, recording a 1.90 GAA and .944 SV%, which gave Philly the confidence to move forward ultimately sealing the fate of Bryzgalov.
So what went wrong? Well Bryzgalov is an average goalie, put behind an atrocious team and there is the recipe for failure. Mix that with a savage media tearing apart the inner workings of the whole team and you make a bad situation even worse.
Had Bryzgalov been signed to a smaller contract, say a three of four-year deal, it could have been fixed much easier via trade or just riding out the storm with Mason at the helm and Bryzgalov planted on the bench. The saga checked just about every box in the bad idea category, from an outspoken player, a bad team, sadistic media, and a team that was struggling heavily for the first time in fifteen years.
Bryzgalov threw water bottles and his goalie stick multiple times, out of frustration at himself, but also frustration that the team around him gave him zero support. This was a time before the defense was as heavily scrutinized as it is today.
Winning covers up lots of cracks in hockey teams, just as losing exposes them. Bryzgalov’s tenure in Philly reaffirms that statement. The Flyers signed him in the first place because he was winning games for Anaheim and Phoenix. Once things turned from bad to worse in Philly, it made Byrz’s play seem that much more inferior.
Bryzgalov was in a lose-lose situation, simple as that. unless he stood on his head and brought the cup to Philadelphia, there’s no way he would make it out of Philly unscathed. While he had spot starts for Edmonton, Minnesota and the Ducks after his Flyers tenure, his negative press ended his career.
He has found a new job on Sportsnet, helping with trade deadline and Stanley Cup coverage. Bryzgalov is still one of my personal favorite players, and with a new, better side of him exposed to the world on Sportsnet, all I have to say is long live Bryz.
Photo Credit: Scott Levy via NHL.com