Third in a series
THE ASSIGNMENT was a daunting one. Fix the Flyers' goaltending.
How do you fix something that has been more or less broken since the 1987 Stanley Cup final?
My opinion is not a popular one. Well, at least, judging by my inbox and Twitter feed.
I would use one of the compliance buyouts on Ilya Bryzgalov this summer. Before firing off an email - obvious subject line: "Hey @$*#)$* stop running Bryzgalov out of town!" - hear me out.
Part of the job requires me to be in the Flyers' locker room every day: training camp, practices, morning skates, home games and road trips. You tend to hear and see a lot - from jokes and pranks to blood splatter and everything in between.
With regards to this season, it was an interesting year to be a fly on the wall. It was a condensed (and intense) season, filled with a lot of new names and faces (39 players in 48 games), and more than a fair amount of frustration. Over the year, you get to learn individual personalities and get a glimpse of how they might fit into the collective team personality.
Most hockey goaltenders are "different" creatures by nature. Bryzgalov is unique even by goalie standards. I believe the word Paul Holmgren once used to describe him was "colorful."
Bryzgalov's tenure with the Flyers got off to a rocky start two seasons ago. It began with being "lost in the woods," followed by a temporary ban from talking to the media, before Bryzgalov introduced the entire universe to his world via the magic of HBO. The highlights (lowlights?) have included a thermos, teammates chirping off-the-record about his sleeping habits in meetings, and a female reporter's blouse.
Almost every single moment generated chatter in the Flyers' locker room - and not in a good way. Players would stop untying their skates and listen (usually with their jaws dropped) whenever Bryzgalov would hold court.
"What did he say today?" was usually the first post-scrum question whispered from teammates to this reporter.
That is a distraction.
Is Bryzgalov well-liked by his teammates? I can't pretend to know the real answer to that, but I can guess. Talking about this subject with former NHL goaltender Kelly Hrudey in a recent interview on Hockey Night in Canada radio, Hrudey said it didn't matter if Bryzgalov was liked, but whether he was respected by his teammates. Is Bryzgalov respected by his teammates? Judging from what I can see and hear, the answer is no. But I don't see what goes on behind closed doors.
Part of my answer to that is based on precedence. Two former Coyotes teammates (Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin) publicly blasted him for being a bad teammate.
"We're actually glad - first of all, I'm glad he's gone because the guy we brought in has done a great job and fitted in real well, made our team even closer," Morris told Coyotes broadcaster Todd Walsh on Nov. 17, 2011. "There was some animosity there with Bryz sometimes. We don't have that with [Mike Smith], so we have a good group and we're winning games because of it."
Yep, that's the year the Coyotes rode Smith, an unproven starter, to the Western Conference finals - when they weren't expected to be competitive sans Bryzgalov.
That is why I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for the players' exit interviews with Holmgren, who has the unenviable task of deciding what to do this summer. Bryzgalov had to be a topic in some of those conversations - with players returning and those clearly moving on.
The reply from most fans is to blame the media. The truth is that no one twisted Bryzgalov's arm to say the off-the-wall things that have come out of his mouth over the last two seasons. He is a grown man. It has nothing to do with "native language" or translation, either. Bryzgalov is actually brilliant - one of the more intelligent athletes I've ever covered. He knows exactly what he is saying and when.
It can't be the media's fault every time. I'm sure there are hundreds of players who have filed through the Flyers' locker room who would have liked to Dave Schultz a reporter asking stupid questions, but most found a bland answer to get the job done.
My inbox was filled with vitriol for asking Bryzgalov after the season if he thought he'd been professional during his tenure with the Flyers. Some saw that as out of line. On the ice, Bryzgalov has been mostly professional - aside from the water bottle and stick throwing - and he has put in an honest effort. Can anyone say that he has handled himself in the most professional way in front of a microphone? He's been a headline writer's dream and a front-office nightmare.
For the record, I do not believe Bryzgalov to be a bad person. He is a family man who clearly enjoys spending time with his kids, who were often around the rink. I do not believe him to be a bad goaltender. None of this is personal - we don't have any sort of relationship, positive, negative or otherwise. And a reporter's job is not to be liked, but rather to answer tough questions like how to solve the Flyers' goaltending.
I do believe, though, that Bryzgalov has been a marginal goaltender in his 99 appearances as a Flyer. His combined save percentage in 99 games in .902. His goals-against average is 2.61.
Take all of Bryzgalov's "color" out of the mix for a second. Are those stats worth $5.667 million a year for the next 7 years? That's 8.8 percent of next year's salary cap.
When you throw Bryzgalov's personality back into the mix, which clearly has the ability to rub team-first players the wrong way, I think the answer becomes a bit clearer. It's easy to say, because I don't need to write off $23 million over the next 14 years.
The bigger question: If Bryzgalov is gone, then who?
Anyone willing to go all-in on Steve Mason after six starts should have their head examined. But I'm a gambler - and I can't deny the bump Mason afforded the Flyers, maybe with personality alone.
Go after restricted free agent Jonathan Bernier in Los Angeles. He's a bona-fide starter buried behind Jonathan Quick. He will require a haul, but he's only 24. Put Bernier and Mason - who won gold together as Canada's goalies in the 2008 World Junior Championships - in a tandem and roll the dice.
Gambling is exactly what Ed Snider did when he bid against himself for Bryzgalov's $51 million contract 2 years ago, anyway.
Today on PhillyDailyNews.com: Check out our image gallery featuring the many faces of Bryz.