January 4, 2012

Ain't no goalie conundrum in Philly.

Don't buy into all the bullshit; there is no goalie controversy in Philadelphia.

You know why? Ilya Bryzgalov signed a nine year, $51 million contract in June.

Yes, Sergei Bobrovsky has the better numbers this season. But it's foolish to worry about stats (or even quality of play) in the winter when Stanley Cups are won and lost in the spring. The most important part of the regular season is solidifying an invite to the big dance and making sure that, when you do arrive, it's with a hot goaltender.

That means the Flyers have 45 games left to get Bryzgalov back into top form, which won't happen if you're rolling Bobrovsky out there 2-3 times a week. It's not just about a financial investment in Bryz; it's about the skill that earned him all those bucks. He's a top-10 goalie, and with the second-highest scoring offense in the league around him, he has the potential to be so much more.

Now, Bobrovsky is a darn good backup who could certainly become a top-tier starting goaltender in the NHL, and I'm very pleased that general manager Paul Holmgren held onto him in the offseason (for a while there, a trade and Michael Leighton call-up seemed like a reasonable plan). The Flyers wouldn't be 22-11-4, good for fourth in the Eastern Conference, without Bob (8-3-1, 2.56 GAA, .914 save percentage).

But he's a spare part, and a enticing one at that. According to capgeek.com, he's making $1.75 million per year through next season, after which he'll be a restricted free agent. That means he's a reasonably priced asset that a young team without a franchise goalie might consider building around. As Eagles fans who've seen Andy Reid ship off backup quarterbacks for a king's ransom over and over again, we know that the most tantalizing trade chip is a flavor-of-the-month reserve with (presumably) vast hidden potential.

As I said earlier, there's certainly an argument for rostering two top-caliber goaltenders. Especially when you employ an emotionally fragile starter who's struggling, a slightly unexpected turn of events that makes Holmgren's trade restraint look quite prescient. But if Brayden Schenn's goal in the Winter Classic is a sign that he's ready to contribute in the NHL, suddenly you've got a slight logjam at forward and a talented, cheap young goalie who's mostly sitting on the bench. You've got options.

And you've got the lack of Chris Pronger starting to become an issue. I like Marc-Andre Bourdon and I'm looking forward to the return of Erik Gustafsson, but this team isn't a real Cup contender without another veteran, top-four defenseman. If the Flyers want to win this year -- and I think they do -- at some point you need to pull the trigger on a blockbuster, especially if it ends up not really weakening the starting lineup.

I doubt the Flyers have got the goods to pry someone like Shea Weber loose from Nashville, but another going-nowhere team might pay top-dollar for a James van Riemsdyk/Sergei Bobrovsky package. I hate to give up on JVR at age 22, but the Flyers have enough forwards. They've got the offense. And JVR certainly seems to be in Laviolette's doghouse this season, injury or no injury. Preparing in full for life without Pronger might be the smartest move they can make, especially if it means shoring up the defense in front of Bryzgalov.

Bryz's mental state is always going to worry some people, especially since the beat writers monitor him like a hawk and devour every morsel that emerges from his mouth. Even if he's winning games, the silly things he says are going to make headlines. I still find them endearing, but I also think it would have helped his psyche and the fans' if Peter Laviolette had played Bryzgalov in the Winter Classic. I figured the enthusiasm of getting the call for such a high-profile game would have outweighed the kick in the butt provided by a benching. He chose otherwise, however, and now we'll get to see how Bryz responds on Thursday versus Chicago.

No matter what your thoughts are on the first few months of Ilya in Philly, we all know that Bryzgalov is not the train wreck he's appeared to be. John Vanbiesbrouck thinks it's largely mental -- the pressure of living up to a giant contract in a hockey-crazed city -- and I've heard some theories about it being practice-related: Bryz just needs to focus more on the basics with goalie coach Jeff Reese.

Either way, now that 24/7 has wrapped and the hubbub surrounding the Winter Classic is fading away, it's time for Peter Laviolette to throw Bryz in net for 6-7 games and let him tend some goal. For better or worse -- and I remain convinced that it's "for better" -- Ilya Bryzgalov is the starting goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers. Any speculation otherwise is a waste of breath, and the time may be coming for the Flyers to make this inevitable commitment to their goaltender (and this year's team) painstakingly clear.

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