Ilya Is Here! Flyers and Bryzgalov Open Negotiations

Ilya Is Here! Flyers and Bryzgalov Open Negotiations

Over the next two days, the Flyers brass will meet with the goalie whose name they hope to have signed onto a contract in the coming weeks and etched into a certain piece of hardware this time next year. 

Ilya Bryzgalov and his representation have landed in Philadelphia, where they'll spend Thursday and Friday negotiating toward making him a Flyer, or determining that Philly isn't the right fit. Although the team can't actually sign him until the new salary cap number is set, and presumably not until after some cap space is created, the meetings over the next few days will be critical in determining whether it will even be possible. 

The traveling delegation of Bryzgalov, who is set to become the market's top free agent goalie, will need to decide upon the balance between fortune and fame he wants when he signs what will be his most lucrative contract. He's a very good goalie in the prime of his career and can command the top tier salary commensurate with his play. But, Bryzgalov has also known several types of professional frustration while playing in North America. How much it will help the Flyers in their quest to sign him, we don't know.  

Having played his previous few seasons in Phoenix should give Bryzgalov some appreciation of the lack of fulfillment that can define the remaining years of his career if he chooses coin over contender. Few if any NHL situations are as dire as the sadly metaphoric situation of "playing ice hockey in the desert," and Bryzgalov clearly wanted out of the Sonoran. Even without knowing the mind of the Russian goalie, it's probably safe to assume that while the Coyotes' inability to meet his salary demands was a big factor, it wasn't the only reason. 

There's also the frustration of playing for a franchise so damned it needed the league to intervene to keep it alive and in place. On the ice, they were a team that was nothing without its goalie, a reality that can be simultaneously prestigious and confining if you're the guy wearing the mask. Whereas a team like Vancouver can make it all the way to game 7 of the Finals despite being grossly let down by their own All-Star goalie, Phoenix had no shot unless Bryzgalov was unbeatable. Even that may not have been enough. 

The important question only Bryzgalov and those closest to him can answer is, how much will playing for a top franchise influence his decision? Despite already being a Stanley Cup champion, Bryzgalov was not the starter when Chris Pronger, JS Giguere, and the Anaheim Ducks lifted the trophy. I don't think Ilya can truly cross the championship off his bucket list yet. To do so here could cement him as royalty in what is considered league-wide to be a great hockey town. How much motivation will the potential of a sterling, lifetime-and-beyond legacy wield? 

Regardless, it's exceedingly doubtful Bryzgalov will come to the table offering much if anything in the way of a discount, even for the promise of playing for a contender stacked with good forwards and defensemen who will make his life easier than it has been at any time in his NHL career. But will he be willing to take a deal just reasonable enough that the club won't have to dismantle key pieces of its depth and erase its great advantage? 

Obviously, Bryzgalov's camp will be holding the best cards today. They know the goalie has value on the open market, and that Flyers showed their significant interest by trading for the rights to negotiate with him before free agency opened. Plus, ownership has publicly decreed that they will be adding a goalie, possibly at any cost. 

Paul Holmgren is tasked with convincing them that Philadelphia is the best destination for Bryzgalov at this stage of his career. Pointing out the goalie's recent playoff shortcomings won't help bring down the price much, if at all. His agent, Ritch Winter, can just say, "Then what are we doing here? Why did you trade for the rights to sign a goalie if you have doubts about him in the playoffs?" 

The only validity the playoff performance argument will have is within the context of the Flyers' confining cap situation. Homer can point to the fact that the Coyotes simply weren't good enough in front of Bryzgalov for his talent to even matter. In order for that not to happen in Philly, they need to keep the forward and defensive depth intact as much as possible.

A short-term deal isn't going to happen. The extreme opposite very well could. Due to their limited space under the cap, the Flyers would have to get creative in order to make Bryzgalov as rich as he wants to be. This "creativity" could amount to something a little dangerous and scary—a very long-term deal for a goaltender, spreading the money over many years to reduce the cap hit in any given season.   

That would likely be attractive to Bryzgalov, as well as help fit him under the cap. But it binds the Flyers to him far longer than we know he'll be effective. Hell we don't exactly know how effective he'll be in a given season, let alone five or more of them. They're already facing the specter of Chris Pronger's role being diminished just a few seasons into his long-term deal. 

It's hard to say what happens next, but at least the two sides are coming to the table with interest in making Bryzgalov a Flyer. Whether that's the best course of action for the team, given what it will cost in immediate salary cap relief as well as long-term flexibility, is anybody's guess. I doubt very much that Tim Thomas' performance last night and throughout the playoffs has cooled the Flyers' interest in acquiring a goalie, and Bryzgalov is currently at the top of their list. We should know pretty soon whether he'll be staying there.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”