By Larry Wigge
The jury's still out on Ilya Bryzgalov in Philadelphia.
You can call the first year of the nine-year, $51-million contract the Flyers gave to the Russian goalie an abject failure. But ...
There's always next year for the 6-3, 213-pounds netminder from Togliatta. His 33-16-7 record and 2.40 goals against average with six shutouts -- at times outstanding -- other times very, very average. But his 5-6-1 record and 3.46 average in the playoffs was less than good.
"I don't think there is going to be any question that Ilya will play better next year." Flyers GM Paul Holmgren explained. "Did he play as good as I expect this year? I would say, 'No.'
"His job is to stop pucks and help us win games. It is not Comedy Central. There is probably a middle of the road scenario somewhere in there. He is a funny guy to talk to, I don't think there is any question about that. He has got some interesting concepts of life."
In other words, the 31-year-old puckstopper needs to shut up. Holmgren would prefer his goalie to stop the pucks ... and focus more on hockey rather than making jokes.
Going from a small market to a big media market where his game was scrutinized on a daily basis had to be a big obstacle to overcome. The Flyers should have seen it coming, but they didn't.
"He had a lot of things to adjust to and adopt to ... from playing in Philadelphia and the scrutiny of the media as compared to what he came from, the scrutiny of the fans from what he came from and a different style of play," Holmgren continued. "We all learn lessons in life, and I think Ilya, for one year in Philadelphia, he has learned a lot of things."
The one big issue is that Flyers castoffs Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are succeeding into the Conference Finals with Los Angeles and castoff goaltender Mike Smith is alive still pitching shutouts for Phoenix.
There were no exit interviews for Bryzgalov. He said nothing. No jokes. Good start to his future in Philadelphia.
Jaromir Jagr played devil's advocate for Bryzgalov.
"Any time you change a team and sign a big contract, it is not easy for anyone," Jagr said. "It doesn't matter what kind of player you are or how strong you are. It is tough.
"Look at Albert Pujols. To me, he is the best baseball player in the world. He had a tough time in the first two months (this season with Anaheim) because he signed a big contract and changed teams. No one would probably think of that before the season, but that is what it is. You have to get used to the new team and coaches. Everything is totally new and I know Bryz is going to get better."
When he's on his game, Bryzgalov covers a lot of that 4 x 6 foot net. He makes the job of stopping shots coming at him at 100 mph or more look easy on most nights.
"It was frantic out there the last couple of minutes with the game on the line," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "There were a lot of pucks bouncing around, but Bryz made some great reactionary saves around the goal line. He's shown the rest of the league how athletic he can be the last few years. Now, all we're asking is that he be consistent and give us a chance to win.
"We're a team that is offensively challenged. The identity of our team is score by committee and be hard to play against defensively. We can succeed playing that way when we get the kind of goaltending Ilya's been giving us. He's been huge."
Said Bryzgalov, "I feel strong. I feel consistent. Some nights, like tonight, I just know I'm going to stop everything. But it's a long season and I don't like to run in front of the train ... because the train at some point can run over you."
A couple of years ago, Bryzgalov became a great story in Phoenix, when on an early morning in November of 2007, then-coach Wayne Gretzky and GM Don Maloney noticed that the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks had placed Ilya on waivers. They noticed the waiver notation at 10 a.m. Gretzky looked at Maloney and they both nodded and put in a claim for the netminder at 10:01. But they had to wait, because they were third on the waiver list behind Buffalo and Washington.
Waiver-wire pickups don't generally make headlines ... but this one has. In fact, he might be the best goaltender waiver acquisition since 1969 when the Chicago Blackhawks claimed Tony Esposito from Montreal in the waiver draft.
Difference-maker? You bet.
"It's all about confidence," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "It's funny how confidence breeds expectations and how it can change everything from how you think, even the kind of energy you have when you come to the rink.
"We knew Bryzzy hadn't been a No. 1 goalie in the NHL before. But we also knew how good he could be, because he was something like 8-1 or 9-1 against us over the years. Now, he's a big part of the team. A funny guy. Great in the locker room. And, this season, he's been phenomenal. He's letting the puck come to him and using that great athletic ability get in front of shots."
Patience paid off then as it is now with Bryzgalov, who was a late-bloomer as far as prospects go. He was selected in the second round, 44th overall, in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. Playing behind J.S. Giguere for several seasons in Anaheim, his biggest claim to fame came in the 2006 playoffs when he became was the first rookie to record three consecutive shutouts in the playoffs since 1945, when Frank McCool of Toronto blanked Detroit three games in a row. Twice Ilya stepped in for Giguere in the playoffs, posting a 9-5 record with a microscopic 1.68 GAA. But he didn't get his chance to be a No. 1 goalie until he arrived in Phoenix.
Bryzgalov had to overcome a major setback in 1994, when he was hit by a motorcycle while walking across a road. Seizures followed -- and some said his career was in doubt. But Ilya persevered.
Alain Chaney, the Ducks director of amateur scouting, spotted Bryzgalov in 1998 at the World Juniors in Helsinki. Though Ilya was the backup goalie, Chaney remembers seeing how outgoing the big goaltender was. That emotion is something most Russian goalies rarely display, so Chaney sent another member of his scouting staff to Togliatti to watch him play. Bryzgalov was playing so well that he displaced former NHL goalie Vincent Riendeau as the No. 1 goalie for Lada, which is about 1,000 miles southeast of Moscow.
And in the 2000 World Junior Tournament in Sweden, Bryz posted a .971 save percentage, prompting then-GM Pierre Gauthier to trade Montreal third-, fourth- and fifth-round picks in 2001 for a second-rounder so that they could take the quirky goalie.
Coming into this season, the Yotes knew how much they would be counting on Bryzgalov. Goalie coach Grant Fuhr swapped jobs with Sean Burke, with Burke taking over the daily goaltending chores. It's been like a match made in heaven for Bryzgalov.
Fuhr is more of a teacher of the mental approach to the game. Burke, a believer in the same teachings of Francois and Benoit Allaire, is more into structure and the technical part of the game.
When Bryzgalov came to Phoenix, he took on a big workload. Nothing wrong with that, but ...
"To me, Ilya can play 60 or more games. No problem," added former Ducks GM Brian Burke. "But there were times last season when the stretches he played were too long. No goalie should have to go through that. My feeling is that we want our goaltender to be fresh and have a chance to be sharp every night. This year, we feel we can do that with Jason LaBarbera."
Simple game. Big impact.
Ilya Bryzgalov is quickly showing how those two actions work pretty well for him.
"It's good to have a coach to talk to who faced a lot of the same questions I have had about playing this game in goal," said Bryzgalov. "Burkie preaches the Allaire way of playing in the nets. At times last season, I found myself playing all over the goal crease. That's not the way Francois taught me and it's a more comfortable and simple game for me."
Next stop Philadelphia and the mucho-bucks contract. Too much for Ilya Bryzgalov.
Stay tuned for Part Two.