After decades of watching his offensively loaded NHL teams flame out in the playoffs because of awful goaltending, Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider pounded his fists on the table and demanded that team GM Paul Holmgren go out and find one. So that’s exactly what he did, throwing the weight of his big market, championship hungry team Holmgren signed stud free agent Illya Bryzgalov to a mammoth 9 year, $51 million deal.
As Flyer fans know all too well by now, Bryz was a massive disappointment in his first year in the black and orange. He followed a 36 win season and .921 save percentage in his final year in Phoenix with a 33 win season and .909 SV% in his first year in Philly. Those numbers aren’t too different but Bryzgalov was playing on a far superior team in Philadelphia and before heating up at the end of the season, he went through stretches where it was clear his team had little faith in him.
After avoiding the press at the end of the season, this past weekend Bryzgalov sounded off to a Russian newspaper about his first year in the city that booed Santa Claus of brotherly love. Among other things, he said, “Now I know what it’s like to be a goaltender in Philadelphia. Maybe from the outside it looks like there’s nothing to it. You only realize it on your own…People are so concentrated on the negative that they only see the bad in me.”
Those comments will probably go over just great with fans that jeer when injured opposing players rise back to their feet. It’s easy to say as a non-Flyers fan, but Bryzgalov has become incredibly easy to root for. He was such a hot commodity coming out of Phoenix because of the defensive system the Coyotes played. Dave Tippett is a notoriously stingy coach and the trap philosophy he implemented on his team made Bryz look like an eventual Vezina Trophy candidate. The Flyers play mostly an offensive speed game and although his stats didn’t suffer much of a letdown, Bryzgalov fell apart when the public eye was focused squarely on him.
Only previously playing with Anaheim and Phoenix in his NHL career, Bryz clearly wasn’t prepared for the media storm waiting for his arrival in Philly. That, coupled with HBO’s 24/7 cameras, seemed to wear on Bryzgalov mentally. The problem is that he’s so easy to root for and there’s simply no glee in watching the Flyers’ investment go up in flames. His quirkiness and sheer honesty make him an easy player to root for in a time when player interviews are the most boring part of the entire sport. Here’s his famously hysterical interview from his Anaheim days:
This season he’s been the talk of the NHL not only because of the contract and the up and down play, but because of all his face time on camera. There’s the famous “Universe” clip from HBO…
…and the “lost in the woods” rant after the Flyers lost 9-8 to Winnipeg.
Even though Holmgren said, “It’s not Comedy Central” when referencing Bryzgalov, the goalie has more than enough time to redeem himself with the Flyers. There’s a strong element of the hockey media that just takes the game too seriously. Management and players are paid to win, but so many others surrounding the game are paid to give their opinions on the game or contribute in a way that doesn’t have to do with wins or losses. It’s a game. Fantasy hockey is fun. Arguing about how important faceoffs are is fun. Would Columbus be better with a new coach? I don’t know but it’ll be fun to talk about it and see what happens. Even if he never pans out for Snider, at least Bryzgalov knows he should be having a good time. It’s hard to root against that.