Ilya Bryzgalov

The news out of Philadelphia that Flyers’ captain Chris Pronger is out for the remainder of the 2011-12 campaign with “severe post-concussion symptoms” comes juxtaposed with the current seven-game win streak that the team has used to propel itself to the top of the eastern conference standings.
While on the one hand Pronger is the type of do-it-all minute chewer that no team can truly “afford” to lose, the fact remains that the team is getting better results than any other team in the league. The Flyers are the only team with a 9-1 record in that patented “L10” column, and their top overall points percentage is largely due to a league-best 12-3-1 record away from home.
Flyers’ fans have long complained that but for the team’s shaky goaltending, the Stanley Cup would go to Philly on something of a regular basis. While this season was supposed to be the beginning of the end of that narrative, all we’ve really seen is more of the same.

The bullies currently sit first in the NHL in goals per game, but have let themselves down in their own zone en route to a 2.79 goals against average that sees them sit 18th overall. While the overreacting and short-sighted types are starting to declare the Ilya Bryzgalov era a failure just a few months in, many others believe the goalie will progress to his mean and turn in a season that should see the Flyers at least in the top 12 in total defense. There is no guarantee that will happen, but backup goalie Sergei Bobrovsky enjoyed a successful stretch with Brian Boucher last season before both goalies (and Michael Leighton) fell apart at the end. If Philly can find that stretch of quality defense and goaltending soon, they can separate themselves in the division.
Perhaps the more concerning stat is the offense. Sure, it’s never concerning to lead the league in goals scored, but now the Flyers have to deal with team and league leading scorer Claude Giroux being sidelined indefinitely, also due to a concussion. Doubly frustrating has to be the fact that the wound was self-inflicted, as Giroux took a knee to the head from teammate Wayne Simmonds, who came over from L.A. in the Mike Richards trade. Giroux should be back before too long, which is nowadays simply to say sooner than Sidney Crosby came back, and when the catalyst does return he should give the Flyers a boost that by that time they may end up needing.
If I were a Flyers fan, I’d be depressed over the nature of Giroux’s injury largely because he has such a small frame. That Giroux picked up a nick is not shocking, but one would “hope” that it would have been acquired in the normal course of a hockey season — in other words, the summation of a small man being continually checked by bigger men. Here, we have what many would consider terrible luck rather than the normal cost of doing business.
All of these successes and injuries sets up a rather large Saturday night duel with the defending champion Boston Bruins, who sit two points back of Philly and lead their own division by six points over Toronto and eight over Buffalo. The game is in Philadelphia, but Boston’s road record is a solid if not under-represented 9-3-0. Twelve road games in the first 30 means the Bruins will have to make up six over the rest of the season, but their division does not seem to be able to pose a legitimate enough threat for that to matter in the end. Barring injuries or a massive dip in form (like, say, their start to the season), the Bruins will probably be playing down the stretch for seeding within the top 2 or 3, not battling it out within the division against noticeably less complete teams.
The matchup between Boston and Philly is always heated, but with first place on the line (technically a tie for first — Philly would have the tiebreaker even with a loss) and the recent news surrounding concussions affecting the Flyers’ roster, this one takes on a heightened sense of midseason importance. Throw in the fact that these two have met in the conference semifinals the last two seasons and have each won a Wales Trophy over those seasons, and the atmosphere could be downright hockey-worthy.
Of note is that while the Flyers lead the league in scoring, Boston is right behind them in second. But as Philly has been just below average defensively (18th), the Cup champs are doing what they do best. The Bruins lead the NHL in goals against, giving up exactly 2 per game. Based purely on the gaps between the averages, the Bruins would win this game 3.05 to 2.83. Put the Flyers on home ice, and like I said, should be a damn good game for that (not at) all-important first place spot 31 games in.
The game is an afternoon one, which should add another variable in this edition of the rivalry. Game time is 1 p.m. eastern time, and the game is being carried on the NHL Network.
By now you’ve probably heard, but the Phoenix Coyotes traded the negotiating rights for goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia in exchange for a minor league winger and two future draft picks.

There are a lot of reasons this doesn’t make sense for the Flyers, and only one reason it does.  First, we’ll look at why it doesn’t.

Bryzgalov is an unrestricted free agent on July 1.  This means that if the Flyers do not sign the goalie to an extension before that date, then the trade brought them no value.  Sure, they could sign him on July 10, but they could have done that anyway, without dealing away anything at all.

So the Flyers must feel pretty confident that they can sign Bryz, or they wouldn’t have made the trade just for the right to negotiate terms with him.  This means they are confident that they will come to financial terms with a man who reportedly is asking for $7 – 8 million a year for eight to ten years.  You didn’t have to watch him quit in the playoffs against Detroit to know that these terms are ridiculous on their face.  And yet, Philly wanted to be able to negotiate with the guy.  Maybe Bryzgalov was setting outrageous prices just to get himself out of Phoenix, but that doesn’t really make sense, because he was free to leave on July 1 anyway.  All of this leads to the strong possibility that Bryzgalov actually believes he is worth being paid as one of the top players in the league.

One end-all reason that the Flyers should not have traded anything for the right to attempt to be rational with an irrational person is that in today’s world of a hard salary cap in the NHL, teams must always be looking for value.  How in the world is there any value at all in shelling out even $6 million a year to a goaltender who has never won anything?  Sure, he led two mediocre Phoenix teams to playoff appearances, but he went 3-7 in those games and twice was eliminated on home ice.  The much more valuable idea would be to find a cheaper goaltender that is worth more per dollar in terms of likelihood to bring a Stanley Cup.  Maybe someone like Semyon Varlamov, who despite being in the top five in the NHL in both GAA and Save %, earned less than a million dollars last year.  Varlamov is a restricted free agent on July 1, and it seems has run out of time in Washington.  I get the idea that if you add a very talented goaltender like Bryzgalov to a team that seems to have its only weakness between the pipes, the product could be a Stanley Cup championship.  But anything shy of the Cup would make any contract in the area code of what Bryzgalov is looking for a terrible one.

But that is, of course, the rub.  If the Flyers don’t figure out their goaltending situation, it’s nearly certain that they will not win a Stanley Cup with this excellent group of skaters that they have locked up through next year and beyond.  Therefore, a Cup championship to success-starved Philadelphia would almost justify any amount of money that would be paid to Bryzgalov, and the goalie and his agent know that.  They are undoubtedly using the fact that Bryzgalov fills a glaring need to their advantage at the bargaining table.  But if the Flyers cave and pay the man anything remotely close to what he’s asking for, everyone better understand that 2nd through 30th places are completely unacceptable.

Beyond the question of whether the Flyers want Bryzgalov at such a high price is the question of how they are going to manage to stay under the cap.  Per, the Flyers have less than half a million dollars of cap space for next season, and this with only 18 players signed.  Eleven of those players are scheduled to make over $3 million in 2011-12, and not all of them are worth that.  It is without question that in order to sign Bryzgalov, or anyone else to fill out the roster, some of these big contracts are going to have to either be moved or bought out.  Jeff Carter, with his $5.27 million number, is the one that comes up in all the trade rumors, but I can’t understand why any other team would take the center on at anywhere near full price.  Believe it or not, Carter has eleven more years on his contract.  Again, the value just isn’t there.  Philly would have the same problem trying to move Daniel Briere and his $6.5 million deal, which has four more seasons left on it.  There are lesser players to move, like Kris Versteeg ($3 million) or Andrej Meszaros ($4 million), but in the end I’m not sure I see the salary dump happening — at least not enough of one to free up the amount Bryzgalov requires.

We’ll see what happens, but I wouldn’t blame the Flyers for letting Bryzgalov walk away from the table on July 1.  I’d only blame them for giving anything up to find out what everyone already knew.

In a week’s time we will come upon the fifteen year anniversary of the Detroit Red Wings sending the Jets from Winnipeg to Phoenix.  Last night, Detroit may have returned the favor for the people of Winnipeg.

It has been widely reported that a move is in the works to bring the Coyotes back to Winnipeg this summer, and the franchise became the first playoff team to have its summer begin.  Last night’s 6-3 loss to the Wings in Game 4 solidified the series sweep for Detroit, and in many ways summed up a disturbing effort from the Phoenix team in general.  Last season, the Coyotes were the team every outsider joked about, as despite their third best record in the western conference, many were taking them the way the Seattle Seahawks were taken going into this past NFC playoff.  As posers, frauds, impostors.  Pundits assumed that the seasoned Red Wings, despite being the 5 seed and on the road for the series, would mow through Phoenix as any world-class former champion would brush aside an unknown amateur.  But the Coyotes showed their mettle in winning two of their three road games en route to a disappointing loss at home in Game 7.  Overall, the result was supposed to be encouraging.
Fast forward to this season and the Coyotes had no reason to think they were substantially worse than last year.  They found themselves competing out of the 6 seed, but they were involved in the jumbled mess that was the NHL’s western conference, and in fact finished tied for fourth in the west, but lost out to Anaheim and Nashville based on tiebreakers.  So this is a team that was one point from repeating as the 4 seed in the west and getting another crack at a home ice series, which would have been against their division rivals, the Ducks.  But instead, the Coyotes drew another matchup with the Red Wings, which based on last year could have been expected to go six or seven games and at least be competitive. But that wasn’t the case.  Not at all.  Only one of the four games did Phoenix lose by one goal, and that was only after spotting the Wings a 4-0 lead in Game 2 before coming back to make it closer.  Then, when they were on the verge of taking the first step last night in a 3-3 game with under 7 minutes to go, goalie Ilya Bryzgalov allowed an unforgivable goal to Dan Cleary which was shot from the corner of the rink and banked in off the Russian’s skate blade and into the net.  A goal like that screams of a lack of attention to detail, and who could argue that wasn’t the case after Bryzgalov closed the playoffs by allowing 17 goals in a four-game series to Detroit?  I understand that many people think the Red Wings are an elite team, but no goalie should carry an .878 save percentage through an entire series, especially a goalie looking to get paid this offseason.  
But Bryzgalov can’t be the only one to blame for this 4.50 GAA that the Coyotes lugged around with in this series.  There are so many clichés I don’t know where to start.  What about the goalie only being as good as the team in front of him?  What about the best defense being a good offense?  Let’s examine that one closer.  Over the course of the season, Detroit allowed 3.18 goals per game.  That number includes all of the games against bad teams too!  Phoenix brought a mid-level offensive year into the playoffs, one that saw them finish 8th in goals scored out of 15 western conference teams.  By this logic, Phoenix should have pretty much scored the average amount of goals on Detroit in this series.  But Phoenix fell short of this achievement by only getting 2.5 per game on Jimmy Howard.  If you want to adjust for the prevent defense aspect, or try to find out how many “meaningful” goals were scored, you’ll find that over the first three games of the series Phoenix only scored two goals that either a) gave them the lead, b) tied the game, or c) brought them to within one.  The other five goals that Phoenix scored in those first three games only brought them to within two or three goals.  I know all goals count the same, but we also know that situations are different, and the scoreboard often times determines how a team will play.  All in all, not a good showing by the franchise, and it almost looked as if they knew they were getting out of town soon.  I still like Doan and the core of young players like Hanzal, Yandle and co., but this effort was not good enough.
On the flipside, this result couldn’t be better for the Red Wings.  Of all the teams that could perennially use some playoff rest, Detroit could almost always use it the most given their reputation as the AARP champions.  While I have always thought the age thing was a little overblown concerning the Red Wings, I do think that in today’s NHL, rest is paramount.  There was a time when it was debated as to whether it was better to go into a series rested or fresh off a highly competitive victory.  But given the fact that the face of the league hasn’t played a hockey game in nearly four months, I don’t think there’s ever a reason to want to have to play more hockey than you have to in order to win.  And it’s not just Sidney Crosby.  Concussions have become the new black in American sports.  Throw on top that the Red Wings are awaiting the return of triple gold club member Henrik Zetterberg, and it makes no sense to argue that the team would be better off risking an injury to another player just to gain some faux sharpness.
I know that Detroit fans are predisposed to hating long waits in between series given the disaster that was the 2006 World Series, which followed what seemed like a month of the NLCS, but knowing what we know about the physical toll of playoff hockey tells us that Detroit could not have put themselves in a better position to prevail in round two than by doing what they did against Phoenix in round one.  There is no question that the Red Wings have been preparing for a second round battle with San Jose ever since it became apparent that they would finish 2nd and 3rd in the west, respectively.  Detroit went into last year’s second round matchup with the Sharks coming off that hard fought seventh game against Phoenix, and that was only after having to battle late in the year to even make the jump from 9th place late.  What resulted was a tired showing by the Red Wings, as they dropped the first three games by one goal apiece, and were eventually downed in five games.  Detroit knew it would have to go through San Jose to get where it wants to be, and they also knew that going into the series beat up and “tested” got them nowhere last year.  In fact, the Wings may even be lucky enough to see the Sharks be the ones who get beat up a little in a long series with the LA Kings, but that hope may have gone out the window when LA blew a 4-0 lead in Game 3.  Not sure if they can mentally come back from that disappointment, and tonight’s game will probably determine whether this is a breeze of a five game series for San Jose, or if this series will become a strong candidate to go the distance.  The Red Wings are hoping for the latter.

Last night the Boston Bruins showed some mettle and snapped a six game playoff losing streak by grabbing a 3-0 lead and holding on for a 4-2 victory in Game 3 at Montreal.  The Bruins looked determined and got a good effort out of pretty much every player, and for once were able to solve Carey Price and play with a lead.  However, at this point Game 4 is no less important for the Bruins, as they don’t want to head back to Boston down 3-1 given that they sit today down 2-1.  They survived the first night locked in a room with the acid bath murderer, now they have a couple days to kill elsewhere in the asylum while they wait to go back into the room for Game 4.  It will be interesting to see which team plays as if it shoulders all the pressure in Game 4, or if they both come out free and uninhibited by their own minds.  On one hand, Boston could feel the pressure because they need the win to avoid the 3-1 hole, but on the other hand, Montreal could be devastated by letting this 2-0 lead slip away at home, and would be within their rights as humans to be worried about losing this boon that they earned.  Either way, the scene should be a great one, and both coaches should do their best to move their guys past any “pressure” surrounding the game.

It’s now time for me to eat some crap.  Prior to the regular season finale I suggested that the Red Wings shouldn’t worry about the 82nd game at Chicago because winning that game would force an undesirable matchup with the Phoenix Coyotes.  ** Pause for laughter.**  I’m sorry puckheads; I was way off.  Being a fan of the Wings may have distorted my view of the matchup, but I don’t really think it did because I’ve improved my objectivity every year and I just thought this would be a progression from last year’s first round matchup.  This whiff of mine wasn’t based so much on underestimating Detroit as it was totally overestimating Phoenix.  The two reasons I liked the Coyotes were their physical forwards and their exceptional goaltending.  Three games of allowing four goals a piece later and I look like an idiot, and Ilya Bryzgalov looks like a guy losing a lot of money come July 1.  James Mirtle wrote a terrific piece on this topic in today’s Globe and Mail.  Bryzgalov appears to be in with Tomas Vokoun as the only two big name goaltenders who can hit the UFA market this summer, and Bryzgalov has done himself no financial favors with this playoff showing.  Before the trade deadline the talk seemed to be that Vokoun was the rental goalie that a contender could add to make a run at the Stanley Cup.  But I never understood this thinking, as there were no teams other than possibly Philadelphia who could add Vokoun and make you say, “I’m pretty certain they are a better team now with Vokoun starting than the guy he’s replacing.”  There was not one team.  Look at the starting goalies on the playoff teams and even most of their backups.  And if anyone seriously thought the Washington Capitals were even considering a move to bring Vokoun in, they weren’t thinking.  Semyon Varlamov has pretty much the same playoff resume that Vokoun has, and Michal Neuvirth has done everything asked of him for the last three years. You can only ask a guy to chase Calder Cups for so long.  And by the way, I’m not entirely sure that Tomas Vokoun is better than Washington’s third goalie, Braden Holtby, who has been outstanding when called upon this season in the absences of Varlamov and Neuvirth.

That situation aside, both Vokoun and Bryzgalov are now looking at a lot of closed doors and fewer suitors than they might have expected heading into this season.  To make matters worse, they play for probably the worst NHL franchise and one that’s moving back to where they came from in 1996.  Winnipeg’s final game was a home playoff loss to Detroit back then, and it looks like Game 4 might yield the exact same result in Phoenix’s last game in the NHL, as it has been widely reported that the franchise will be moving back to Winnipeg.  Coincidentally, 1996 was also the year the Florida Panthers (Vokoun’s team, and “probably the worst NHL franchise”) made their surprising run through the eastern conference en route to getting swept in the Stanley Cup Finals by Colorado.  That was 15 years ago, and neither franchise has done anything of note since.  Those are the options for these two big name goalies to resign with.  The other options are… Toronto, maybe?  Tampa Bay if Roloson retires or Mike Smith doesn’t earn the Lightning’s trust for the fourth time?  Detroit could have been an option, as many experts criticize the play of Jimmy Howard, but the Wings gave Howard a 2 year extension in February, so that option’s out.  Even most of the bad teams either have big money goalies or young guys that they want to see about.  So all of this adds up to the basic fact surrounding both Bryzgalov and Vokoun this summer:  There are almost no opportunities to get away.

Tonight’s schedule is meager, but both games should be worth watching for different reasons.  First, Vancouver looks to close out the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.  After the undercard, the Staples Center will be the 16th and final building to open its NHL playoff schedule this year when the Kings host the Sharks in a deadlocked series.  I’ve already dedicated an entire entry to the Vancouver – Chicago series, and nothing that has happened so far has warranted any amendments (damn you again, Phoenix).  Going into the playoffs I thought San Jose would make quick work of Los Angeles, and they still might, but it should be pretty tough going for the Sharks tonight as they leave the Shark Tank and go into a place that should be brimming with excitement at this big opportunity for the Kings.  Traditionally I really like home teams in Game 3s, and don’t like the Sharks, but something has been telling me for a few months that this is a different Sharks team.  They haven’t looked any different so far, as they barely escaped with Game 1 in overtime, and were throttled 4-0 in Game 2 at home.  Tonight I’m going to go with history and logic over my irrational feeling that San Jose has somehow transcended their history and reputation.  Besides, San Jose might not be able to conjure up desperation in a 1-1 series.  Let’s wait and see if they fall behind 2-1, and then we can expect the talented and now arguably gritty Sharks to lock down and grab a road victory.  I expect this series to be 2-2 heading back to the Shark Tank, but we’ll go with LA tonight.

Enjoy the closest thing to a day off in the NHL playoffs folks, because we’ve got 5 games on Wednesday’s schedule, and none of them are small (except Phoenix, thanks again…).  Cheers!