VOORHEES, N.J. The opening act wasnt great. It was interesting and amusing at times, but the story didnt develop the way the team or the town hoped. And now everyone is left to puzzle over how the second act will go. Will you stand and applaud when its over or will you cover your face with your hands and watch through the openings between your fingers?
How the Flyers perform this season will have a lot to do with Ilya Bryzgalov. If that worries you, you probably arent alone.
The Flyers have an excellent shot to win it all this year. The sports books in Vegas have them installed at 121 odds (along with the Los Angeles Kings) to claim the Stanley Cup. Only the Penguins (81), Rangers (172) and Canucks (91) are listed ahead of the Flyers. Imagine the odds if the goaltending situation was a little safer, a little less troublesome.
Thats how it goes in Philadelphia. Every goalie since Ron Hextall should have had a question mark instead of a number sewn onto his sweater. Thats especially true of Bryzgalov.
I just have to worry about one thing: how to help the team win games, Bryzgalov insisted on Monday following the Flyers' second day of training camp at the Skate Zone. Thats it.
It sounds simple. It isnt. Not with Bryzgalov.
Its impossible to predict how Bryzgalov will play this year. Sometimes his programming performs perfectly. And sometimes his wiring malfunctions and he short circuits at the worst moment. You never know.
There was a stretch toward the end of last season when he played exceedingly well. Bryzgalov had four shutouts in March. In nine other games that month, he allowed two or fewer goals. That was good Bryz, the one the Flyers figured they were getting when they rescued him from the parched hockey wasteland in Phoenix and brought him to Philly for a large sum of money.
Bad Bryz also made appearances last year. He struggled to start the season, he was benched for the Winter Classic, and he got roughed up at times in the playoffs. He allowed an average of 4.33 goals against the Penguins in the first round of the postseason. In fairness, that was a crazy collection of games with an inordinate amount of unstoppable offense from both sides. Bryzgalov probably gets absolved considering the nature of the series and the fact that the Flyers won.
In the next round, he wasnt awful against the Devils. He wasnt great either. Bryzgalov surrendered an average of 3.6 goals over five games against New Jersey. When the Flyers were busy collecting their thoughts while the Devils moved on, Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux and some others said more than once that Bryzgalov wasnt the reason they lost that series. And he wasnt. But he also didnt help them win it. He was just a guy.
Thats how it went for Bryzgalov a year ago. There were too many moments when the well-paid netminder was just a guy. For the regular season, he had a 2.48 goals against average. That was 21st in the NHL. He had a .909 save percentage. That was 32nd in the NHL. You look at his numbers on the ice and you compare them to the numbers in his contract and the disparity is striking.
Following this year, the team will owe the goaltender 34.5 million on his oversized deal. Because of the new CBA, after this season, the Flyers will have the option to buy out the remainder of his contract for a little more than two-thirds the price. That comes to around 23 million, which wouldnt count against the salary cap if the Flyers chose to fold Bryzgalov into a capsule and launch him into the free-agent atmosphere.
The Flyers will have a major, potentially organization-changing decision to make when this is all over. And Bryzgalov knows it.
That brings us to another cause for concern. A year ago, Bryzgalov had some issues adjusting to Philadelphia and the media and the attendant pressure. All the cosmonautgalaxymonkeys-in-space talk made him a fascinating figure, but it also made people wonder if the wannabe entertainer in him (Big Screen Bryz) can coexist with the goaltender who gets paid above all else to stop pucks and win games for the Flyers. How will he play knowing full well he might not be around next season if he doesnt improve? Will it motivate him or make him melt?
Its complicated with Bryzgalov. The issue isnt just what happens between the pipes. Its what happens between his ears.
E-mail John Gonzalez at email@example.com.