Bryzgalov's no laughing matter
The Flyers' Stanley Cup hopes rest on funny, talkative goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov
Signing Bryzgalov to a huge contract will be GM Paul Holmgren's legacy move
Bryzgalov's tendency to speed-read plays and cheat is being exploited by foes
MONTREAL -- There was a little confab near the blueline on Wednesday morning at Philadelphia's pregame skate. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, gesticulating like a man asking for directions to the train station in his third language, was chatting animatedly with three of his defensemen --- Andrej Meszaros, Andreas Lilja and Kimmo Timonen -- while assistant coach Kevin McCarthy and goaltender coach Jeff Reese tossed in the odd observation.
"Just sorting out everyday stuff," Lilja would later explain in the dressing room.
Bryzgalov was trying to streamline the Flyers lexicon. He wanted to simplify communication between goalie and defense to three phrases: play it, leave it and over.
The curious thing is not that Bryzgalov would want to get on the same page as his defensemen. (Same page, although the book might be different. In Phoenix, he once recommended Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment to Sean Burke when his goalie coach asked for a reading recommendation.) No, the oddity was that Bryzgalov, of all people, would be enmeshed in some sort of communication problem.
When asked who might win a mano-a-mano gab contest, Flyers forward Max Talbot, the most voluble of players, conceded he would be crushed by Bryzgalov, who, to borrow from Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. "At least I talk to say something," Talbot says. "He's just talking. About Russian politics and stuff."
Most of the early-season attention in Philadelphia has been on the exceptional return of Jaromir Jagr to the NHL. (With his Kardashian butt protecting the puck and his rare hockey instincts seemingly sharp as ever, the 39-year-old Jagr looks like he might be able to play until he's 45.) But next spring, in the critical moments for a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, the focus will shift squarely to Bryzgalov.
He is the new goalie solution in Philadelphia. Nothing could possibly go wrong there.
So here we go again.
Like wide receivers in Chicago, Philadelphia just hasn't been able to get this goaltending thing right, at least not since the early days of combative Ron Hextall in the late 1980s. The Flyers have invested in free agents who previously took teams to the Stanley Cup Final, such as John Vanbiesbrouck (Florida) and Ray Emery (Ottawa). They have tried first-round draft choices like Brian Boucher, who wound up doing three separate tours of duty with the organization, and Maxime Ouellet. In this goalie rogue's gallery -- which also includes Tommy Soderstrom, Dominic Roussel and Jean-Marc Pelletier (extra credit for that one) -- the Flyers even put their abiding trust in the bizarre Roman Cechmanek, who, during a 2003 playoff game, bent down to pick up his glove while a bad angle shot whizzed over his shoulder. Robert (Silent Bob) Esche. Martin (Motormouth) Biron. They've been everywhere, man.
After coach Peter Laviolette was obliged to pull his starter from three straight games in the Flyers' playoff humiliation by Boston last spring, general manager Paul Holmgren tried to end the madness by acquiring another goaltending brand name. Philadelphia signed the 31-year-old Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51-million Idi-Amin-style-Flyer-for-life contract after trading for his rights prior to the free-agent period. Perhaps that's overstating the issue. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter also appeared to be Flyers forever, but their rich contracts were stunningly shipped out of town last summer, at least in some measure to create room for Bryzgalov's annual $5.67 million cap hit.
For all the reconfiguration that Holmgren did during the summer to fix a talented but broken team -- and ditching a pair of core players was the height of drama -- Bryzgalov likely will be the GM's legacy move, the one affixed atop his permanent record.
"I thought [Bryzgalov] was the reason Phoenix did as well as it did," says winger Wayne Simmonds, who came from Los Angeles in the Richards trade and knows Bryzgalov well from the Western Conference. "It's an honor to be playing in front of him."
Apparently it is also an honor -- or at least a hoot -- to be sitting next to him in the dressing room of the Flyers' practice rink in southern New Jersey. His principal audience, first line winger James van Riemsdyk, says Bryzgalov's soliloquies already are becoming part of Flyers lore. Maybe Bryzgalov has the advantage of doing deadpan with a pronounced Russian accent, but the Will Ferrell devotee still has killer material. (For a hockey player, anyway.) On the way into a Haddonfield restaurant for a recent pregame meal, Bryzgalov spotted two workers cutting down trees. He stopped and told the men, "I guess we don't need the beavers anymore."
Among the other Bryzgalov bons mots from his first weeks in Philadelphia:
On the Flyers' rivalry with the Rangers: He thought there might be a lot of "murders. Make sure we have enough ambulances."
On what he knows about Washington's Alex Ovechkin, his teammate on the 2010 Olympic team: "He's Russian. He wears No. 8. He has a nice contract from Gillette."
Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, who played with Bryzgalov in Anaheim where the goalie was nicknamed "Borat," once recalled for SI.com the Ducks' Stanley Cup victory party to which Bryzgalov arrived fully prepared. "He took out these sardines and started offering them around," Pronger remembered. (Now, these sardines might actually have been herring, a more traditional Russian feast dish. We'll run it by a fishmonger in the next few weeks.) "The wives were looking at him like he had four heads. Obviously, he was going to chow down."
Of course as the late Dick Williams once said about managing pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee in Montreal, "He's a lot funnier when he's winning."
After a strong start, Bryzgalov has not been winning much. Hours after the on-ice Berlitz lessons, he lost, 5-1, to the Canadiens, the first home victory by the foundering team. As a Flyers executive said before the game, Bryzgalov had not been giving up bad goals as much as odd ones. Indeed, at least two of the last three would qualify.
The goalie was on his rump during a scrambled play when the puck went off Andrei Kostitsyn's skate. And on the final goal, Bryzgalov overplayed the puck by the side of his net -- he corkscrewed himself to the post and swiveled his head -- and allowed copious space on the far side for a Montreal tap-in.
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Bryzgalov is 6'3", big and agile. But he tends to cheat, speed-reading the play in anticipation of what might happen next. This approach might work with Crime and Punishment, but it failed in the playoffs last season against Detroit, which highlighted his propensity for cheating in its scouting reports. Bryzgalov allowed 17 goals in the Detroit sweep.
Sergei Bobrovsky, part of the Flyers' goalie rotation last season, has won both of his starts and his .918 save percentage so far trumps Bryzgalov's .884, all of which has touched off low-level rumblings from Philadelphia's hockey commentariat.
"Obviously things are different here than in the places he's played before," van Riemsdyk says of Bryzgalov. "Philly is not Phoenix or Anaheim in terms of the attention he'll get or the expectations that'll be placed on him. But he's played in the league for a while so he knows what's going on here."
"There might be an adjustment for him," Flyers enforcer Jody Shelley says. "There are things to learn in a demanding hockey market. If you just play for your team, and worry about that, the outside stuff takes care of itself. But he's talented. One of the best in the world. You can't forget that."
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