By Stu Hackel
April 11, 2013
Eccentric goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov's quirks are beginning to look a lot like pure selfishness.
Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

Winning covers up lots of cracks in hockey teams, just as losing exposes them -- and no team seems more exposed right now than the Philadelphia Flyers and, especially, their king of the quote: goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.

Well, what is it this time?

It seems that Bryzgalov fell asleep, or at least pretended to doze off, during a team meeting on Monday. Now, lots of members of the Flyers family have denied it -- and what would you expect them to say? But shortly after those denials went public, a few members of the team confirmed to Frank Seravalli of the Philadelphia Daily News that the goalie did indeed take a little siesta.

"Whether he was actually sleeping or not, no one knows for sure," said one player, who demanded anonymity, for fear of retribution. "It seemed like he may have been doing it to get a rise out of other players. I'm not really sure why he did it, or if he was faking it. Either way, it seemed to catch a lot of people by surprise and anger a few people."

TV cameras had already caught Bryz practicing his Sleeping Beauty act during last Saturday's game against the Winnipeg Jets, a contest in which he was pulled after allowing four goals in the second period.

He was benched in favor of Steve Mason for the entirety of the Flyers' next game, Tuesday's 4-1 loss to the Islanders. Seravalli wrote of Monday's meeting that two Flyers said Bryzgalov "definitely had his eyes closed" and that it was a big topic of conversation among the players. "Some voiced their concern that he closed his eyes to show his displeasure of the decision to start Mason."

This emerged a day after the news broke that Bryzgalov had confessed he didn't care whether the Flyers bought him out of his contract at season's end, that it was something he couldn't control, so he wasn't going to worry about it. It's hardly the first time he has adhered to the philosophy of Alfred E. Newman and Bobby McFerrin. Bryz made it his mantra in his breakout performance on HBO's 24/7 last year, when he ruminated about cosmology to the delight of many.

"The solar system is so humongous big, right?" he said, "But if you see our solar system and our galaxy on the side it is so small. You can't even see it. Our galaxy is so huge, but you see the big picture our galaxy is small, tiny, like a dot in the universe. And we think like, and we have problems here on the Earth that we worry about, compared to like...nothing! Just be happy. Don't worry, be happy right now."

The only humongous things about Bryzgalov were his contract (nine-years, $51 million -- including a humongous payout of $10 million for 2011-12) and the percentage of goals he's allowed compared to the shots he'd faced. In the next episode, HBO cameras captured teammates who were less than enthralled after his 24/7 debut and you got the idea that Mr. Universe suddenly wasn't Mr. Popularity.

In the wake of his taking center stage on HBO, he made other alienating remarks, like his dubious explanation to the press that his three-game benching was the result of his being sick, which was news to his teammates and coaches. It only got worse when he preempted coach Peter Laviolette's announcement to the media that Sergei Bobrovsky would start in the 2012 Winter Classic.

"I have great news and even better news," Bryzgalov disclosed. "Great news: I'm not playing tomorrow night. Good news: We have a chance to win the game." He added that he wanted to be sure to bring his thermos so he could stay warm on the bench.

If his teammates didn't appreciate his act, it all might have blown over if he had performed well last season, especially during the playoffs. But he didn't. This Bryz-gaffe sadly became his signature Flyers postseason moment.

The Flyers' demise at the hands of the Devils in the second round was not all his fault (nor, even was that goal; why did Kimmo Timonen even pass the puck back and put him in that position to cough it up?). But his stay in the KHL during the lockout didn't go particularly well, either, with CSKA apparently telling him goodbye in December. Bryzgalov's story was that he was leaving because the lockout was ending, but on Dec. 30, that was hardly a certainty.

Still, the shortened season was a time for new beginnings everywhere and Bryzgalov acquitted himself well at the outset, even though the team in front of him struggled. He even resisted the urge to talk to the media as frequently as he had last season.

"His attitude has changed big-time from last year to this year," Scott Hartnell told Seravalli in early March. "He's not trying to be in front of the camera and take all of the accolades. He's been more to himself. He's worked on his game and it's showed. He's probably been our best player through the first half of the season."

But the defeats piled up and a couple of weeks later, Bryzgalov could take it no longer. Following a 5-1 loss to the Devils, he found the microphones -- or they found him -- and his "don't worry, be happy" attitude was not in evidence.

It really seems as if he didn't want to be critical of his teammates in that clip, but he was, and he caught himself a bit too late. Maybe he angered some of the other Flyers, maybe he didn't. But there seems to be a pattern with Bryzgalov that can't be ignored. He struggles with the concept of being a team-first guy.

Ought to know better

Everyone in hockey is willing to cut goalies some slack. They've always been the sport's acknowledged eccentrics. But as quirky as any of them may be, they all have to somehow fit into their team. It's one thing to stand apart, it's another thing to stand opposed. In his blog post on Wednesday, my colleague Allan Muir was willing to forgive Bryzgalov and blame whatever fallout might have occurred on the newspaper that published the goalie's remarks, making them sound worse than they really were. But I'm not buying it.

Bryzgalov has been in the NHL for years. He should understand by now the importance of being a good teammate. Allan is completely correct when he writes that the goalie should have at least prefaced his remarks with, "I'd love to finish my career with the Flyers, but..." When Bryzgalov said he didn't care if he was a Flyer next season or not, some of the players who go into battle with him every day had to take offense -- at least those who aren't already hoping that he gets bought out.

Of course, this is more on the Flyers organization than Bryzgalov, a newspaper, or anyone else. The front office's chronic blind spot when it comes to goaltending is the real culprit here. Whoever suggested that Bryzgalov was the man to remedy Philadelphia's long-time absence of even a solid starting goaltender is at fault. It made no sense to pay him an exorbitant sum without doing the homework on how good a goalie (he'd only once won a playoff series) and teammate(his personality was no secret) he'd been, or how well he'd fit where the demands to win and stick together are as much a part of the team's culture as the stylized P on the sweater.

Most recently, Bryzgalov's play has slipped. In his last seven games dating back to March 26, he's surrendered 23 goals, over 3.28 per game, which doesn't spell victory for a team that scores only 2.77 on average. But poor Ilya couldn't even catch a break in games the Flyers won. In their 5-3 come from behind victory last week, he gave up this flukey goal to Montreal's David Desharnais in which he appeared to duck under the puck...

....and that got NBC Sportsnet's Mike Milbury going on one of his rants (although, of course, it doesn't take much to get Milbury going).

So after 22 games, dating back to Feb. 18, someone other than Bryzgalov got the start for the Flyers, in this case Mason, while Mr. Universe yawned on the bench. Bryz was slated to be back on Thursday night against the Senators for a battle of two teams in desperate need of two points.

But, his flippancy aside, Milbury raised a big question: How much longer will Bryzgalov wear orange? With the Flyers contractually committed to a cap of nearly $66 million next season and the cap going down to around $64 million, at least one well-paid Flyer will have to go. The team gets two amnesty buyouts over the next two seasons that won't count against the cap. Danny Briere's $6.5 million cap hit makes him vulnerable, but so does Bryzgalov's $5.66 million.

The truth is, when he claims that there's nothing he can do to prevent the Flyers from buying him out if they choose to do so, he's wrong. He can play better. He can be a better teammate. He can make himself indispensable, regardless of the price.

Right now, Ilya Bryzgalov looks pretty damn dispensable.

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