Jun 16, 2011, 4:13 PM EDT
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.
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