For Martin Brodeur, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Semyon Varlamov, the last half of the NHL's 2011-12 season has been a chance to recover from disastrous starts.
For Brodeur, the question was whether or not one of the league's all-time greats was still a starting-caliber goaltender in the NHL. A shoulder injury and a sprained right ankle cost him seven games early in the season, but poor play cost him more as he increasingly looked like a lesser goalie than journeyman backup Johan Hedberg.
For Bryzgalov and Varlamov, the question was more whether or not their new clubs had made terrible mistakes in betting heavily on their abilities. The Flyers signed Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51-million contract in the offseason, shedding costs elsewhere in a massive retooling of a competitive team. The Avalanche, coming off a year where they finished with the second overall pick in the NHL draft, sent away both their first round pick in 2012 as well as a second round pick to Washington for Varlamov, gambling that a new goaltender could power their club to a playoff spot. Both goalies struggled in the early going, losing playing time to their backups.
Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils
October December: 11-9-0, .892 SV%
January Present: 15-11-3, .916 SV%
After a largely missed October, an ugly November, and sub-average months in December and January, Brodeur has caught fire, posting a .924 SV% since February and a GAA in the 2.00 range, along with his first two shutouts of the season.
It didn't come a moment too soon. As early as December, some were wondering whether Brodeur's poor performance meant that this would be his last season in the NHL. Others asked Devils head coach Peter DeBoer whether he was ready to anoint Johan Hedberg as the team's starter. For a while, thanks in part to Brodeur's injuries, things were close over the season's first three months, Brodeur appeared in 22 games, Hedberg 18. Brodeur's resurgence has put to rest any potential controversy in New Jersey. In the new year, Brodeur has played in 30 games, Hedberg just seven.
It's strange because this is the second year in a row where Brodeur was terrible for the season's opening stanza, and excellent down the stretch. In 2010-11 another season where injuries were a factor Brodeur went 5-18-1 with a .886 SV% through December, and then 18-8-2 with a .919 SV% the rest of the way.
Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers
October December: 14-8-3, .890 SV%
January Present: 16-5-4, .929 SV%
There was a time, back when Dan Cloutier was emerging as the starting goalie in Vancouver, that general manager Brian Burke described the city as a "goalie graveyard." In Philadelphia, it would take a new spirit of tolerance and love toward the men between the pipes to even reach that moniker.
When the Flyers overhauled their team last summer and acquired Bryzgalov, they thought they were putting to rest the reputation the team had for icing subpar goaltenders. The 2010 Vezina finalist was widely regarded as the best goalie on the free agent market, and the Flyers paid dearly trading a pick and prospect to Phoenix for the right to negotiate with him prior to July 1, and then handing out both money and term.
Unfortunately, Bryzgalov imploded almost immediately. After a 9-8 loss to Winnipeg, Bryzgalov said things like "I'm terrible" and "If you throw a ball instead of the puck, I'm not gonna stop it." The oddball comments and miserable play quickly moved Bryzgalov from savior to question mark.
Since January, Bryzgalov's been brilliant. Not only has he posted the gorgeous stats line seen above, but he also set a new record for the Flyers' longest shutout streak, at just under 250 consecutive minutes without allowing a goal.
Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche
October December: 12-13-1, .897 SV%
January Present: 12-7-1, .931 SV%
The really interesting thing about Varlamov is that unlike the other two goalies, who faced the threat of job loss, he actually did lose the starting role to Jean-Sebastien Giguere for a while, with no real help from injury. Between December and February, Varlamov started 19 games to Giguere's 20 starts.
The presence of Giguere was important to the Avalanche; not only did he allow the team to stay in the playoff hunt while Varlamov found his game, but it was while Varlamov was competing with Giguere for playing time that the young Russian really emerged as a high-caliber goaltender.
Avalanche GM Greg Sherman took a big risk when he sent his first round pick to Washington for Varlamov's services; had Varlamov's struggles continued, or Giguere failed to rise to the occasion, the Capitals could very well have been looking at a top-10 pick. Instead, Colorado now has two goalies they can count on and are in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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