As the Stanley Cup playoffs were winding down, after attempting an ill advised rotation of three goaltenders in a span of 11 playoff games, the Philadelphia Flyers decided that they would go out and bring in a top flight, undisputed starting goaltender before the start of the 2011-2012 season.
On one hand, you had the physically imposing Russian goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Due to become a free agent, he was engaged in protracted negotiations on a new contract with the Phoenix Coyotes and they were going nowhere fast.
On the other hand, the Florida Panthers had left no mixed signal in that they were more than willing to let their #1, Czech Tomas Vokoun, test the free agent market despite his excellent numbers.
Bryzgalov has been acknowledged as one of the top net minders in the league today; if not the world. A figurative wall in between the pipes at 6’3, 209lbs with tremendously agility going from post to post, he was a waiver wire pickup by the Phoenix Coyotes from the Anaheim Ducks, his career in the desert saw him post GAAs of less than 2.50 and save percentages in excess of .920, while leading the Coyotes to the postseason the last two seasons.
Vokoun (6’0, 216lbs), while in a non playoff environment since his days with the Nashville Predators, has also been consistently near the tops in NHL goaltending statistics: putting up GAA’s in the 2.50 range and save percentages around .924. Catching with his right hand, Vokoun is known for having excellent coverage of the lower half of the net and an excellent glove.
Both very comparable players with similar statistics; one better in terms of wins (Bryzgalov had 42 wins during his 2009-2010 Vezina Trophy candidate season) and goals against, the other with a higher on average save percentage. The major differences one can discern is Bryzgalov’s recent post season experience and their ages as Bryzgalov turned 31 in June, while Vokoun just turned 35.
As we all know, the Flyers chose Bryzgalov and pursued him as aggressively as any player they have in recent memory, dealing forward Matt Clackson, a 2012 third round draft choice and a conditional draft choice for his negotiating rights.
The sizable contract given to the Russian goaltender (9 years, $51 million, $5.6 million cap hit with a first season salary of $10 million) has been a source of particular angst amongst Flyer fans though, as the deal precipitated the climate changing trades of captain Mike Richards and leading scorer Jeff Carter, both acknowledged cornerstones of the franchise.
This angst has only become greater as Vokoun waiting out the market too long and finding there were little chairs remaining as the music was stopping, the 35 year old signed a one year contract with another Stanley Cup contender in the Washington Capitals at a $1.5 million cap hit, over $4 million per year less than the Russian’s contract.
So the question that will be discussed throughout the season will be: were the Flyers too impetuous in going after Bryzgalov? Should they have waited out the market and if the Russian’s price didn’t drop, could they have signed Vokoun instead and kept much of their roster intact?
Beezer or Cujo?
While the eras and financial landscapes are different, the current scenario still brings to mind the great goalie choice of the summer of 1998, when the Flyers were kicking the proverbial tires on another Florida goaltender, John Vanbiesbrouck, and the Edmonton Oilers’ Curtis Joseph.
Some might say it was a choice of three, with New York Rangers’ goalie Mike Richter (a Flourtown, PA product) also in the free agent mix, but most acknowledge that Richter was using his hometown team as leverage to get a better deal with New York.
So really the choice came down to Vanbiesbrouck or Joseph, with many of the Flyers’ faithful screaming for the later. As we now know, they went with the former while Joseph signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As negative reaction came in on general manager Bob Clarke’s decision to sign Vanbiesbrouck, the press conference included a famous quote from the former Panthers netminder (who in 1996 led his team to the Stanley Cup Final) on a question from the media that the Flyers “settled” for him…
“I’m not just a coat on a rack here.” And during the regular season, he wasn’t as he rebounded to post 27 wins, a 2.18 GAA, with a save percentage of .902, up from 18 wins from the previous season and lowering his GAA from 2.87.
However, things didn’t end well that year as his postseason performance didn’t set the world on fire. His Flyers fell in six games to Joseph’s Maple Leafs who moved onto the conference finals that season with Vanbiesbrouck giving up several questionable goals on his stick side.
Only a half season later, Vanbiesbrouck was demoted to backup behind young Brian Boucher who led Philadelphia to within one win of the Stanley Cup Final. He would be dealt to the New York Islanders for a fourth round pick and etched his name in recent memory as another Flyer goalie that couldn’t get the job done.
In the meantime, Joseph went on to having some of the best statistical years of his career in his three of the four years he was with the Leafs, garnering win totals in the mid 30’s, a GAA of 2.48, and save percentage over .910.
The prime years of Joseph’s career…and the Flyers missed them with a team that included the names of Lindros, LeClair, and Desjardins.
So Who’s Beezer and Who’s Cujo, Now?
Some may oversimplify here and think that I am automatically making the comparison that the Flyers made the reverse decision this time, with Bryzgalov playing the role of Joseph and Vokoun playing Vanbiesbrouck.
It’s not that cut and dried. The Flyers then certainly had a legitimate argument for signing Beezer just looking at his postseason experience. He was the safe choice at the time. It is possibly the same rationale that the Flyers used in their decision to go after Bryzgalov since he has been in playoff action more recently than Vokoun.
He has also won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2006 when he started the first ten games for the injured J.S. Giguere when he posted six wins and an eye popping 1.46 GAA with .944 save percentage. This was on a team with a great blue line led by Scott Niedermayer and his once again team mate Chris Pronger.
Of course you could make the reverse argument that he was only that good behind a team with excellent defensive depth. Take a look at the Flyers blue line when healthy. They run easily run five men deep. In Phoenix, he had Ed Jovanovski, Keith Yandle, and an average cast of characters after that.
But at the same time, if you think that young Sergei Bobrovsky is your future workhorse, then the signing of Vokoun could be argued as being more prudent, and as it turned out more fiscally viable in terms of keeping a roster together that came within two victories of a Stanley Cup.
You certainly can’t put the age argument in there as the two goaltenders (Boston’s Tim Thomas and Tampa Bay’s Dwayne Roloson) in the Eastern Conference Finals this season were north of 40 and we all know that Thomas capped one of the greatest single seasons in league history with a Conn Smythe Trophy and a championship.
Again, we will watch this all play out this season and it will make for a fascinating view; especially if these two goaltenders meet each other sometime in the postseason. The Flyers will be hoping that it turns out better for them this time around.
In Other Flyers News…
Cap Crunched Again
The salary cap became a concern again for the Flyers as a report that was substantiated by noted resource CapGeek.com indicated that the team owes several players, including now departed Sean O’Donnell and current backup goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, $1.4 million in performance bonus money. Performance bonus money from the previous season is tacked onto the current season’s cap. This currently leaves the Flyers a scant $175,000 over the cap.
Once injured RW Ian Laperierre goes on the Long Term Injury Reserve (LTIR) list, the Flyers will have about $1.34 million in cap space. Even that scenario still hampers them in terms of having likely only one extra player on their roster. Unless they make a deal or come up with another method to shed salary, the Flyers may be faced with going into the season with a shorthanded roster choice: 13 forwards and only 6 defensemen or only 12 forwards and 7 defensemen.
One possibility would be waiving forward Jody Shelley who has an annual cap hit of $1.1 million on his three year deal, which he is in the second year, and promote Tom Sestito who makes half of that ($550,000).
Another would be finding a suitor in a Bobrovsky (who is making $1.75 million as a backup) trade, but that would also mean that they either would have to look for a veteran back- up goaltender or promote from within.
During the past week, the Flyers signed 5’11, 175-lb free agent G Jason Bacashihua to a one-year contract, 6’1, 185 lb. C Jon Kalinski to a one-year contract extension, and 6’3, 200 lb. C Marcel Noebels to an entry-level contract.
There were initial concerns that the singings were going to push them over the contract limit of 50, but Noebels contact is under the “sliding” rule, meaning that it wouldn’t count if he were returned to junior, which is very likely. Therefore, the Flyers are at their maximum allotted number of contracts.
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