It’s Time For Ilya Bryzgalov To Earn His Money With The Flyers

There aren’t many towns that love their hockey teams the way the city of Philadelphia does. It’s been a long time since the Flyers have brought home the Stanley Cup—not since the 1974-75 Broad Street Bullies has Philly won it all. But this has been a consistently good team, they’ve made three trips to the Finals since then and when Philadelphia reached the championship round in 2010, it looked like they might be closing in on finally bringing back the Cup. But recent problems, while not taking the team off the radar, seem to indicate their getting further, not closer, to their goal.

Philadelphia center Claude Giroux as at the fulcrum of one of the best offenses in the league. Over the last two seasons, they’ve generated a high volume of shots—thanks in large part to Giroux’s passing skills—and have been in the top three of the NHL in scoring goals. Last season, it didn’t matter whether it was standard 5-on-5 action or within the power play—the Flyers could strike and score at any time. The execution on the defensive end was solid, as the team finished in seventh in shot prevention. Yet, Philadelphia was a lowly 20th in the bottom line at preventing goals. And that’s what’s costing them their championship aspirations.

During the 2010 run to the Cup, the main Philadelphia goaltender was veteran Brian Boucher, who battled injuries and became an inspiration to the fans and the team as they worked their way through the playoffs, including one of the epic comebacks in the history of sports—Philly beat Boston in the second round after trailing 3-0 in games and then trailing 3-0 in Game 7 itself. It’s a series that will live in infamy in the heart of this partisan Bruins’ writer. During that playoff run, Philadelphia was the best of all 16 playoff teams and preventing goals and it’s the reason they came within two victories of the Stanley Cup.

Throughout the 2011 season, the Flyers looked the part of a Cup contender, but Boucher’s age and injuries were catching up to him and by the end of the regular season it became apparent the goaltending situation was a mess. Even though Philadelphia was the #2 seed, it was not a surprise when they struggled to get past Buffalo and then were swept by Boston. Along the way, the Flyers set playoff  records for the number of in-game goalie changes.

No one can say management was unable to identify the problem. Philadelphia dropped $51 million on a nine-year commitment to Phoenix goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. The first year of the experiment was, quite frankly, a disaster. Not only was Bryzgalov’s play subpar, but Phoenix made it one round further in the playoffs based exclusively on the work of Bryzgalov’s replacement, Mike Smith. If you asked Flyer fans to trade Bryzgalov’s contract for A-Rod’s contract with the Yankees straight-up, it might be a reasonable debate.

Philadelphia’s off to a 2-3 start this year, and while that’s no big deal, all teams have to be cognizant of early slumps in a shortened 48-game schedule after the lockout. Bryzgalov’s save percentage is at 92.3%–not bad, but still not worthy of that big contract. And he’s going to have to start coming through, because the offense has taken a hit. Forward Scott Hartnell is out with foot surgery and will miss the next six weeks. Giroux is still on hand, but this offense needs someone who can light the lamp off his passes.

Hartnell’s injury is going to mean a greater need for production from forward Wayne Simmonds, but above all, it’s going to have to call an end to the recent era of Philadelphia needing to win games with their offense. Bryzgalov has his big contract. Now it’s time for him to return the favor, because his play is the only thing standing in the way of Philadelphia and its first Stanley Cup in 38 years. Being the man on the hot seat in a town like Philly isn’t fun, but it’s what the goalie signed up and got paid for.