On some level, it was the right idea.
The Philadelphia Flyers had gone as far as Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup finals while spending the fifth-lowest percentage of their cap hit on goaltending. They followed up that Cinderella playoff run with a strong regular season showing in 2010-11, finishing second in the Eastern Conference with 106 points, before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the second round -- this time spending the seventh lowest percentage-wise on goaltending.
While pinching pennies between the pipes by employing a cast of journeymen, backups, retreads and rookies like Michael Leighton, Brian Boucher, Ray Emery and Sergei Bobrovsky, Philadelphia outclassed the opposition everywhere else on the ice with a vast array of talent, including Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux, Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, supplemented by plenty of quality depth.
Philadelphia appeared to be one tantalizing piece away from being a top Cup contender. Clearly, the most direct way to improve the squad was to add an elite netminder -- and that's certainly what Flyers Nation was clamoring for. A good thought, but as is often the case, the devil is in the details.
Under intense pressure from owner Ed Snider, general manager Paul Holmgren acquired the rights to Ilya Bryzgalov on the eve of the 2011 NHL entry draft, signing the seemingly above-average but inconsistent 30-year-old netminder to a puzzlingly long nine-year, $51 million contract, tying up nearly $6 million of cap space through his age-39 season.
While most Flyers fans were focused on and distraught over the simultaneous trades of franchise cornerstones Richards and Carter, the fact is that Holmgren got equivalent value in those deals. Any ire directed toward Philadelphia's ownership and front office should have focused squarely on the Bryzgalov fiasco. The signing was a disaster on a couple of levels -- the indefensible contract, which the sabermetric community lambasted, and the misidentification of "elite" talent, which somehow slipped by just about everyone.
How did that happen?
Often high-profile performances become etched in people's minds, even when they never reflected real, repeatable talent level or no longer reflect current talent level. As a wet-behind-the-ears backup with Anaheim in 2005 and 2006, Bryzgalov followed up mediocre regular seasons (.910, .907 save percentages) with superior playoff performances: a .944 save percentage in 11 games, including back-to-back shutouts while displacing Jean-Sebastien Giguere as starter in 2005, and .922 in five key appearances en route to the Ducks' 2006 championship.
Then, there's the question of what qualifies as a long enough and accurate enough sample of a player's performance to base future projections on. In Phoenix, while Bryzgalov's first two seasons under Wayne Gretzky were a mixed bag (.920, .906 SP), if you added in his last two seasons under Dave Tippett (.920, .921), it made for a pretty impressive four-year track record with the Coyotes, at least on the surface. In retrospect, though, Tippett and goaltending coach Sean Burke seem to be making everyone in a mask and pads look like Superman in Phoenix, inflating save percentages for Bryzgalov, backup Jason LaBarbera and 2012 Vezina snub Mike Smith over the past three seasons.
Effect of Dave Tippett and Sean Burke on Phoenix netminders, 2009-10 through 2011-12
Player Under Tippett/Burke Rest of career Career avg.
Ilya Bryzgalov .921 .911 .915
Jason LaBarbera .916 .902 .907
Mike Smith .930 .906 .914
Therefore, while some may look at Bryzgalov's 2011-12 campaign as a disappointment and an anomaly, the fact is that .909 is just a tick under his career average -- if you toss out the last two seasons behind Tippett's system, which might be the real anomalies. Bryzgalov's save percentage has been between .906 and .910 in four of his seven seasons. That's not elite, and Bryzgalov never was.
Then again, it was hard to predict a performance as bad as this postseason, either, though if you were paying attention, things were trending in this direction. Looking at these numbers, 2006 and 2007 seem like distant memories.
Downward trending playoff performances for Bryzgalov
Year 2006 2007 2010 2011 2012
Age 25 26 29 30 31
Save percentage .944 .922 .906 .879 .887
The funny thing is that other than the highly visible gaffe on the David Clarkson goal in Game 5 against New Jersey, some folks don't seem to realize how poor Bryzgalov's performance actually was, perhaps in part because of how dreadful Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury (.834 SP in six games) was against Philadelphia in Round 1. This was a historically bad playoff run for Bryzgalov, the worst of the post-lockout era, if you consider goaltenders who played at least seven games in a postseason.
Worst playoff goaltending performances, post-lockout
Year Player Team Age GP ESSV% Save %
2012 Ilya Bryzgalov PHI 31 11 .897 .887
2010 Marc-Andre Fleury PIT 25 13 .907 .891
2010 Roberto Luongo VAN 30 12 .930 .895
2011 Antti Niemi SJS 27 18 .912 .896
2009 Nikolai Khabibulin CHI 36 15 .906 .898
2011 Marc-Andre Fleury PIT 26 7 .908 .899
72 qualifying player-postseasons. (ESSV%: Even-strength save percentage)
So ironically, the Flyers stand farther away from finding that elusive elite netminder than they did a year ago. Because of the long-term commitment to Bryzgalov, it seems extremely unlikely that Philadelphia would acquire another big-name goaltender. In the short run, the Flyers can hope that Bryzgalov can perform up to the standards of an average NHL starter. But the numbers indicate that might be the best they'll get.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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