Figuring out the Flyers: Goaltending

Figuring out the Flyers: Goaltending

May 6, 2013, 9:00 am
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This is the first of a three-part series looking at the Flyers' roster in review.
 
It begins and ends with the goaltender.
 
And that's not just in Philadelphia. It's everywhere. The problem is, there has been so much goalie strife in this city over the years, it dominates every discussion about the team.
 
Since 1967-68, 49 goalies have been in net for the Flyers.
 
The current duo of Ilya Bryzgalov and Steve Mason has left Flyers fans polarized. Never in the history of the club has one player – Bryzgalov – been both equally admired and disliked by so many people.
 
There is no shade of gray with Bryz. You either like him or hate him. Some of it has to do with his contract. Some of it has to with his play. Some of it has to do with his personality and antics.
 
That’s not the case with Mason. You don’t hear a peep of criticism from the fan base. If anything, the people who dislike Bryzgalov are now pointing toward Mason as their savior for next season.
 
As much as his detractors would like to see the Flyers exercise an amnesty buyout of Bryzgalov this summer, it doesn’t figure to play out that way.
 
Both these guys are here to stay. For now, anyway.
 
Ilya Bryzgalov
Age: 32 (33 in June)
Record: 19-17-3
Shutouts: 1
Minutes played: 2,298
Goals-against average: 2.79 
Save percentage: .900
Cap hit: $5.66 million for next seven years
 
The story of the Flyers' goaltending this past season was of one starter and one finisher. Bryz started; Mason finished.
 
It’s hard to argue this simple fact: Bryzgalov gave the Flyers a fighting chance through January and February, when the team was wrecked with injuries and starved for goal scoring, and its defense – depleted all season by injury – was a mess with one breakaway after another.
 
Bryzgalov was a very effective goalie from the start through Feb. 9 with a 2.27 GAA and .921 save percentage.
 
And that’s when the sheer number of games and minutes played began to take a physical toll on him. To that point, it was 12 straight starts that would become 22 before he was toast.
 
To blame goalie coach Jeff Reese or head coach Peter Laviolette for those starts is misplaced. The Flyers were 5-6-1 and 10th in the Eastern Conference at that point.
 
There was no qualified backup because Michael Leighton had already shown he had nothing, while Brian Boucher was equally incapable of giving the Flyers a chance to win.
 
Bryzgalov’s downfall this season, in part, is directly tied to general manager Paul Holmgren's trying to go the cheap route last summer in re-signing Leighton, then picking up Boucher.
 
It was a disastrous decision that directly impacted Bryzgalov, forcing him to play too many games in a hectic, every-other-night schedule.
 
The only real criticism of Bryzgalov is that far too often, he was unable to come up with that one clutch save that might have sparked momentum for the Flyers and given them a chance.
 
That said, you have to wonder how Bryzgalov would have performed with a capable backup, like Mason, at his side to spell him with regularity. It’s not unthinkable that Bryz might have resembled the same goalie who was the league’s MVP in March 2012, when he posted four shutouts.
 
That’s what Flyers management is counting on next season. That with regular rest and rotation, Bryzgalov will resemble the goalie the Flyers thought they were getting two summers ago. The one they threw $51 million at to sign.
 
All that aside, Bryz’s stay-in-the-net style puts more pressure on the defense to play the puck from behind the net and slows the Flyers’ breakout. That problem became compounded because the defense wasn’t very mobile, at times, and repeatedly showed it wasn’t very good with one-on-one puck pressure.
 
Laviolette would like to see Bryzgalov play the puck more next season and give his team a chance to avoid the opposition’s forecheck. Like it or not, Bryz has to make some changes in his game.
 
While he may not admit it, Bryzgalov played deeper in the net this season and made himself appear small at times. How much of that had to do with fatigue is unknown.
 
If the Bryzgalov of March 2012 resurfaces next season, all the talk about amnesty buyouts disappears.
 
If not, he won’t be back after 2013-14.
 
Steve Mason
Age: 24 (turns 25 May 29)
Record: 4-2-0
Minutes played: 378
Goals-against average: 1.90
Save percentage: .944
Cap hit: $1.5 million
 
If Bryzgalov represents Batman, then Mason is his Robin.
 
No one really knew what to expect of the 24-year-old when he came to the Flyers at the trade deadline.
 
Actually, the team had talked about acquiring Mason no less than twice in the past, even before they signed Bryzgalov two years ago.
 
The Flyers got Mason at a bargain price because, unlike Leighton who had nothing left in the tank, this kid has untapped potential. Many feel he can once again become the same player who won the Calder Trophy back in 2009.
 
Since arriving here, all Mason has talked about is how relieved and happy he is to make a fresh start with no strings attached, to prove himself while regaining the confidence he had lost over the previous four seasons in Columbus.
 
The Flyers won 10 of their final 15 games of the season. They won four straight with Mason in net.
 
He took a massive pay cut to re-sign for next season because he wants to show the Flyers what he can do, and then let them decide what he’s worth. What a refreshing point of view from an athlete.
 
Mason was surprisingly effective playing with a vastly depleted lineup in front of him at the end. His numbers were so good, you can almost predict the headlines next training camp: "Can Mason Unseat Bryzgalov as Flyers’ Starter?"
 
Based on what we saw in seven games played (one in relief), it’s a legitimate question to ask. Bryzgalov didn’t have any competition behind him this season. He will next fall.
 
What the Flyers really like about Mason is his puck handling. You have to go back to Ron Hextall to find a young goalie this team has had whose puck handling skills weren’t the only attribute to his game. Again, it’s a different feeling for this organization.
 
What the Flyers have to do this summer is re-design their defense to take advantage of Mason’s skills outside the net. That means acquiring quick, mobile blueliners who can get the puck 10 feet inside the slot, instead of on the back boards, and begin the breakout in rapid transition.
 
People may not want to hear it, but the Flyers seemed to enjoy playing in front of Mason. A defenseman’s wear and tear is shortened by not having to turn his back into the boards to get pucks because Mason is feeding him on the fly in transition.
 
It would have been intriguing to see how things would have played out in the playoffs if Mason were around and Bryzgalov had faltered in the opening series.
 
You can’t make rash judgments about a goaltender off seven appearances. Sergei Bobrovsky, for example, had a tremendous rookie year for the Flyers, only to struggle terribly in Year 2 before being traded to Columbus, where he eventually unseated Mason.
 
Did the Flyers give up on Bobrovsky too soon? Yeah, but they thought they had a world-beater in Bryzgalov.
 
Columbus gave Mason a chance to recover his game and he didn’t with a poor team in front of him.
 
The Flyers are going to give Mason that same chance with a better club in front of him. It starts this summer.
 
Wednesday: Part 2: A look at the Flyers' defense.