On Tuesday night, the Flyers opened the NHL off-season early, trading for the rights to free-agent-to-be Ilya Bryzgalov. The final horn on the 2010-2011 season hasn't even sounded, with the Stanley Cup Finals still very much underway, but that didn't stop GM Paul Holmgren from getting started.
Below, we'll take a look at some of the Flyers precedent moves ahead of free agency opening, the career to date of Bryzgalov, and the presumably tough road that faces the Flyers if they want to actually sign him.
TRADING AHEAD OF THE MARKET
The move to acquire Bryzgalov's rights may have surprised most fans and media alike, but it's not out of character for Homer and the Flyers to try to jump the market. The team successfully signed both Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell (retro link!) after trading for their rights in June of 2007. More recently, they acquired the rights to defenseman Dan Hamhuis and received permission to negotiate with goalie Evgeni Nabokov last off-season. Both sets of free agents are a good lesson in the wide spectrum of what could happen with Bryzgalov. While Timonen and Hartnell are Flyers, Hamhuis' rights were flipped to Pittsburgh for a draft pick after the Flyers couldn't sign him (nor could the Penguins, who got nothing in return), and Nabokov chose to head to Russia before ultimately winding up a New York Islander via a path too long to describe here. Long story short, the Flyers' two most recent attempts at getting ahead of the market to land a targeted player resulted in little more than a lot of wasted ink and keystrokes.
That's not to say the same will happen with Bryzgalov, of course. The goalie is most certainly looking for his next hockey home, and the Flyers should be an attractive landing place if the money and duration of contract are right (a big if, but we'll get to that later).
However, the Flyers won't be able to pull the trigger on an offer right away. Frank Seravalli points out that they can't make a deal until the new salary cap is announced unless they make a trade. Even after the new cap is announced, they will likely need to move salary if they intend to accommodate the cap hit of the market's top available goalie. Plus, as we learned last season after poring over the Hamhuis and Nabokov possibilities, the Flyers may not be willing or able to offer a desirable enough deal, either because the free agent wants more money, or simply wants to play elsewhere.
On Tuesday night, Holmgren said that he had not yet spoken to Bryzgalov's agent, Ritch Winter. But, the GM also gave every indication that the team acquired his rights with the intention of signing him, not just kicking the tires ahead of the rest of the league joining the shopping spree.
BRYZ'S BIO IN BRIEF
While most hockey enthusiasts will know quite a bit about the NHL veteran by now, playing in the Western Conference for his entire career has kept him off the radar for many as well. Most of us know what we've read far more than what we've actually seen. Bryzgalov has represented his native Russia in numerous international competitions, including the World Juniors, World Championship, and the Olympics, notching a Bronze in the competition while not actually appearing in any games, and a gold in 2009 World Championships with an impressive run. Bryzgalov began his NHL career with the Anaheim Ducks (they were "Mighty" then) after being selected in the second round of the 2000 entry draft. In Anaheim, he faced a difficult depth chart that included JS Giguere, Martin Gerber, and finally Jonas Hiller, but he was ultimately a part of a Stanley Cup-winning team in 2007. Giguere was the club's starter though, and also the recipient of a new contract. The Ducks were unable to work a deal to move Bryzgalov, and he was waived early in the 2007-2008 season, then claimed by Phoenix, where he's been since.
His career NHL numbers include a 2.53 GAA and a .916 save percentage, as well as a record of 156-116-35. [Video highlights here]
Bryzgalov garnered recognition as a stud goaltender in his second full season with the Coyotes (2009-2010), posting 42 wins, a 2.29 GAA, and a .920 save percentage. With the franchise faltering at nearly every level, their goaltender was a major factor in leading them to the playoffs in a tough division and was the runner up in Vezina Trophy voting for the league's top goalie.
However, neither of his two playoff campaigns with the Coyotes—both against the Detroit Red Wings—were what you would call stellar, including an 0-4, 4.36, .879 mark in 2011.
Therein lies one of the concerns many Flyers fans will have. Getting to the postseason is rarely this team's problem.
WHAT ABOUT BOB (AND THE '10-'11 FLYERS "DEPTH")?
Bryzgalov will begin the season at the age of 31, presumably right within the prime of a goaltender's career with a handful of high-caliber seasons ahead of him. As such, he'll want and will likely command a long-term deal north of $5 million or even $6 million per season after pulling in $4.25 million in the final year of his Coyotes deal. If Sergei Bobrovsky's the goalie of the future for this franchise, I hope he's learned a lot from Kevin Kolb.
We'll probably get more into what this all means for Bob in a later post, possibly after the Flyers actually sign Bryzgalov, which is far from a forgone conclusion at this point. There's little reason to believe Bryzgalov would be a short-term answer or a bridge to Bob though. Why would he sign a 2- or even 3- year deal at the height of his value?
Last off-season, the Flyers were unable to land any of the big name goalies on the market, but that may have been in part due to their belief that they could build a strong enough team both offensively and defensively to support "good" goaltending—not necessarily a true #1 guy. Although goaltending wasn't the team's only problem during a second half collapse and a sweep out of the second round of the playoffs, the postseason carousel was ultimately a major issue, and also seemingly a source of embarrassment at the highest levels. Chairman Ed Snider, while on the one hand touting the prospects of Bobrovsky as a possible goalie of the future for the team, made it clear he wants an answer in net now as well.
If the Flyers can come to terms with Bryzgalov, it's hard to imagine there being a whole lot of room to also groom Bobrovsky. If there is, it would likely mean that Bryzgalov has either been injured or has faltered in his new surroundings, which would be a disaster. Bobrovsky is under the Flyers' control for now though, and Holmgren said the duo would be among the best tandems in the league if Bryz joins the Flyers, indicating that Bob wouldn't be headed to Adirondack for seasoning (although that could change, and holding a GM to the comments he gives reporters is foolhardy). Even if Bobrovsky does stay with the Flyers, it's highly unlikely the goaltending situation will resemble what we've seen in previous seasons, with the duties being traded off regularly throughout the season, and worse, the postseason.
Best-case scenario if Bryzgalov is signed, is the team completely reverses historical course and does have a dynamic tandem, with one guy starting a backup's share of games, and down the road, the team has flexibility with possibly moving a sought-after goalie for whatever needs it has at the time.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves though.
There's still a lot that needs to happen before any possible deal can fully be evaluated. If and when Bryzgalov signs, there will not likely be total agreement on the part of the fans as to whether it was the best move, at least not before any games are played. Even if the NHL's cap raises to the levels most assume it will, the
Flyers will still be tight on space to retain anything resembling the full complement of their current roster.
Brian Boucher didn't quite make $5mil+ a season.
A player or, more likely, several players will either not be re-signed (perhaps Ville Leino) and/or traded in order to accommodate the cap hit. This would signal a marked change in the Flyers philosophy from last off-season, and despite the fact that two studs are opposing each other in this year's Finals, there are plenty of examples of teams making sacrifices to land a top goalie and still not getting over the hump, while relative unknowns hoist the Cup.
Then again, it's hard to argue that a well-balanced team with a top-tier goaltender is a bad way to go after it. The questions now are, is Bryzgalov truly a top-tier guy, can the Flyers get him to sign, and will the sacrifice in depth be worth it?
We'll look into each of those as news arises on the Bryzgalov front. Until then, we're all ears for your opinions.