The Ilya Bryzgalov Era: Why it started, why it ended, and what we learned
Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images
By Charlie O’Connor (@THG_Charlie)
Our story begins with an overreaction.
Not the overreaction that would occur on June 23, 2011, when the Philadelphia Flyers would sign goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine year, $51 million contract to be their new starting goaltender. No, this overreaction would occur over two months earlier on April 18th, when Peter Laviolette chose to bench apparent starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky for Brian Boucher in Game 3 against the Buffalo Sabres after one bad period in Game 2.
Bobrovsky, who had seemingly earned the title of “goaltender of the future” during an impressive rookie season, was cast aside, first for Boucher, and later, even for Michael Leighton. Despite the goalie musical chairs during the playoff run, the Flyers would still fall in four games to the Boston Bruins in the second round, but the entire narrative of the playoff run had dramatically shifted. Instead of the playoff exit being attributed to the growing pains of a young, talented goalie, it was blamed on a debacle of a goaltending situation, one that had been completely unnecessary.
Ed Snider clearly bought into the narrative. Following the loss, he famously vowed, “We are never going to go through the goalie issues we’ve gone through in the last couple of years again.”
Enter Ilya Bryzgalov.
The consensus best stopper on the market, Bryzgalov entered Philadelphia as presumptive goalie savior, here to finally bring long-term stability to the position. The signing will forever be linked to the Mike Richards and Jeff Carter trades that occurred the same day, but Bryzgalov was coming to Philadelphia regardless, the product of a powerful man frustrated with a problem that, ironically, was finally showing signs of solving itself.
Almost two years to the day, that savior would leave in disgrace, product of a buyout that had come to be seen as an inevitability.
It was Bryzgalov’s personality that many pointed to as he exited, as rumors flew that the goaltender had clashed with both Peter Laviolette and his teammates throughout his tenure in Philadelphia. His often bizarre and polarizing comments to the both the Philadelphia and Russian media only served to lend possible credence to the accusations.
But in the end, the buyout’s cause can be boiled down to two main reasons: cost and production.
The nine year, $51 million contract seemed excessive on Day One, given in a buyer’s market to an above-average but not truly elite player. To warrant the commitment, Bryzgalov would need to be both a workhorse and consistent contender for postseason awards – otherwise, the contract would be a dramatic overpay, especially in the back half of the deal.
Instead, Bryzgalov struggled even to live up to expectations in the early years of the contract. A 0.909 save percentage over 59 games in his first season in Philadelphia did not quiet the critics, and a 0.900 save percentage the following year only intensified the cries that the Russian would never live up to his salary cap hit.
To be sure, Bryzgalov dealt with extenuating circumstances both years. Year one could be considered a transition season, as Bryzgalov acclimated himself to a new team and culture, and even finished the regular season as one of the hottest goalies in the league. Year two started strong, but fell apart as Laviolette chose to run his goaltender into the ground with a relentless workload, as he desperately tried to salvage a failing season.
However, he needed to be great in order to warrant his massive salary. And Bryzgalov simply was not.
The Flyers exit the Bryzgalov saga paying $16.5 million for two seasons of below-average statistical goaltending, and an additional $23 million to remove him from the roster for good.
While Philadelphia’s front office in recent years has been rightfully criticized both for their constant impatience and their cavalier attitude to the new salary cap, the Flyers have remained a competitive and exciting team because they remain one of the NHL’s best at gathering and evaluating talent.
They scouted and drafted Claude Giroux, one of the league’s top forwards. They identified players such as Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell as targets and added them to the core quickly and effectively. They were able to pluck undervalued young defensemen such as Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle from foes and watch them develop into key members of the defense.
Even the Richards and Carter trades, still maligned by some in the Flyers universe as reactionary and ill-advised, brought back not one bust. Only Nick Cousins has yet to contribute in a key role for Philadelphia, and he finished third in OHL scoring in 2012-13. The rest are either borderline stars (Jakub Voracek), potential stars (Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier) or strong offensive contributors (Wayne Simmonds).
So how could they misjudge Ilya Bryzgalov so dramatically?
The Bryzgalov signing was, at its core, a failure of process.
Instead of truly evaluating the goaltender using statistics, observations, and firsthand accounts of his personality, the Flyers identified a problem and decided that Bryzgalov was the best available solution.
Rather than determining whether Bryzgalov was a good fit for the Flyers, Philadelphia decided that the Flyers needed to be a good fit for Bryzgalov. In the end, it was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
They failed to account for Dave Tippett’s system in Phoenix, which fit Bryzgalov’s style perfectly by providing the strong positional goalie clear sightlines whenever possible, while also limiting the odd-man rushes that the goalie tended to struggle with in Philadelphia.
They failed to account for Bryzgalov himself, a quirky, unique personality amusing from afar but one that had alienated teammates in Phoenix and likely would not play well with a Philadelphia media desperate for quotes at all cost.
And finally, they failed to account for the possibility that their desperation had blinded them to the fact that they just might already have the young, franchise goalie to grow with their equally young roster.
While Sergei Bobrovsky’s Vezina Trophy victory was not the cause of Ilya Bryzgalov’s buyout, it did serve to put the finishing touches on evaluating a signing that was already viewed by most as a total mistake.
Philadelphia, in their haste to solve an overblown problem, had rushed to overpay for a goaltender without properly determining whether that goalie would be a fit for the team.
The cost? Only $39.5 million and a Vezina winner.