It was New Year's Day when Ilya Bryzgalov's season descended into "Daily Show"-style parody. That morning, the Philly netminder announced he wouldn't be starting the Winter Classic against the New York Rangers.
"Great news: I'm not playing tomorrow night," he said. "Good news: We have a chance to win the game."
People who didn't find that funny: the Flyers, especially coach Peter Laviolette, who didn't want this information revealed. People who laughed: everyone else, although we don't depend on him as much as Philadelphia does.
On that day, Bryzgalov -- on pace to appear in 59 games -- owned an .890 save percentage. How ugly was that? Looked through NHL.com's statistical database and couldn't find a single goalie who played in that many games over a full season with a save percentage that low. (The closest was John Grahame, who was at .889 in 57 games with the Lightning in 2005-06. The online league stats go back to 1997-98.)
Bryzgalov's number was .912 in January, .910 in February and a blistering .968 so far in March, going 5-0 with three shutouts.
"He looks big now," Daniel Briere said. "Confident."SO WHAT HAPPENED?
When Bryzgalov left Phoenix for Philadelphia, a couple of his former teammates warned that "he had no idea what he was getting into." While his personality wasn't a secret to them, it was generally unknown to the public. That was going to change in a hockey hotbed, a place that's very tough when things go bad.
The 24/7 cameras exacerbated the problem. "It almost ruined him," said one Flyer (no one quoted in this blog). One thing you learn as a member of the media is that teammates can react negatively to one of our "darlings," especially when he's not playing well.
That certainly happened with Bryzgalov. The organization wanted to muzzle him, only to get into a battle with local reporters, who understandably wanted access to the starting goaltender. So, quietly, it attacked the problem from other angles.
The objective was to re-focus Bryzgalov on what is really important. Briere needed to clarify some remarks made last week about the goalie now being "actually...a good teammate," but did chat with him about the pressure of a big contract.
"I've been there," the 2007 free-agent signing said last Saturday. "I know what it's like to feel that. It's not easy...you feel like you have to earn every cent every second."
Briere made $10 million US in the first season of his eight-year, $52 million deal, the same amount Bryzgalov earns now. That year, he scored four goals in his first three games, then had three in the next 16. (He had another stretch of three in 22.)
Meanwhile, others in the organization stressed two more things. First, the goalie was asked to shut out all distractions. Second, he was told to improve his practice habits.
Bryzgalov's got 91,000 twitter followers and there's no doubt they were letting him have it. (Love 140-character dialogue, but as Mark Cuban noted on Saturday, there are plenty of people with "twittercourage.") There's been zero activity on his account since January 11, which isn't a co-incidence. Basically, the team told him to "stop reading everything."
As for practice, the feeling was Bryzgalov wasn't serious enough about it. He hadn't struggled like this over the past four seasons, averaging 67 appearances per year. Therefore, he didn't need to do a ton of extra stuff and received rest time because of his workload.
With his game in tatters and on pace for his fewest starts in five years, Bryzgalov was asked to re-discover his work ethic. He did, going on the ice early and putting in the time. Goaltending coach Jeff Reese does believe that big goalies need to play a lot to keep their technique sharp, so it wouldn't be surprising if he voted to staple Bryzgalov to the starting job.
(Also wouldn't be surprised if the team showed him a boatload of positive video, reminding Bryzgalov how good he's been.)
Bryzgalov won't satisfy his critics until he wins a playoff series. As we worked off our New Year's hangovers, that seemed impossible. Now, the Flyers feel they've got a fighting chance.
Stan Bowman threw cold water on any rumblings Joel Quenneville is in any trouble in Chicago. Former Scotty Bowman assistant Barry Smith's been on the ice a few times during practice, helping with the power play. "[Barry] is our director of player development and we have young players with us, so it's not uncommon for him to work with them. We've done it before," Bowman said. "As for the power play, we went through an 0-for-40 stretch. It doesn't hurt to have an extra set of eyes."2.
Why is this even a question? It is "unusual" (in the words of other executives) to have someone else go on the ice with your coaches. In the gossipy NHL world, people are wondering how Quenneville (who just got a much-deserved raise) feels about this. 3.
Was curious to see how many Columbus fans took advantage of the team's offer for a "free switch" from a Jeff Carter jersey to a Jack Johnson. The number? 43. Curious to see if another team tries this promotion, although the Blue Jackets' fans certainly loved it.4.
Doctors told Lindy Ruff they were wrong about the Sabres coach suffering three broken ribs in the February practice collision
with Jordan Leopold. There were five.5.
If you're one of those teams faltering in the playoff chase, Jody Shelley has a good story for you. In 2010, he was a Ranger for the stretch run. On March 22, New York was 10th in the Eastern Conference, five points out of the playoffs with 10 games to go. A few players were eating when Mark Messier walked into the lounge. "We were pretty down about our situation," Shelley said. "He told us, 'You still have one-eighth of the season to go. That's enough time to make a difference.'" The Rangers rallied, going 7-1-1 until a last-day shootout loss in Philadelphia ruined the narrative. 6.
Pretty impressed with Sven Bartschi, even though he was probably shaking with nerves. Mike Johnston, who coaches him at WHL Portland, says Bartschi's practice habits remind him of Paul Kariya's. "[Sven] is always working hard; you can see how much he loves the game," Johnston said. "I'll leave the ice and he'll still be out there another 30-40 minutes."
What does he work on the most? "He'll get an assistant coach to throw passes at him while he's going with speed in the neutral zone," Johnston replied. "He'll take them on his skates and transfer to his stick, or try to receive it with one hand...You never see him fumble a pass." Johnston believes receiving passes is a hugely critical skill in the NHL, and Bartschi's worked hard to master it.8.
Kelly Hrudey with a very interesting opinion on Luke Schenn. He thinks Toronto trading him at 22 might be similar to Los Angeles dealing Darryl Sydor at 23. By that time, Sydor was already a critical part of a Stanley Cup Finalist (1993), but I tend to defer to Kelly's thinking because he played 677 more NHL games than I did. Sydor played 1,003 afterwards, winning two Cups.
One thing that might help Schenn is that Randy Carlyle/Dave Farrish allow their defencemen to play with one hand on the stick. Ron Wilson believed in two, "but that's gone now," said Carl Gunnarsson. Now, whether on the penalty kill or defending against two-on-ones, one hand is ok.10.
Another immediate change noticed by opponents: Toronto's defencemen are playing farther away from the boards. To activate their transition game, Wilson wanted them closer to the wall, so they could quickly get to pucks fired into their zone that way. Other teams exposed that by attacking the middle. 11.
Matt Duchene's injury is a tough one for the Avalanche. One of their best assets is strength and depth down the middle. There aren't a lot of Western teams who can match up physically with Duchene, Paul Stastny (although they do play together sometimes), Ryan O'Reilly and Jay McClement. 12.
Another reason for Colorado's charge is Gabriel Landeskog. Like any 19-year-old rookie, he started tentative but is growing into the player he was in junior. Much more aggressive now, especially on the puck.13.
Same deal for Blake Wheeler, who leads the Jets in scoring and already has a career-high 56 points. What do the Bruins see that's different about him? "He's playing with much more bravado," said one. 14.
Probably shouldn't be, but was a little surprised Sidney Crosby didn't return against Boston. Knowing his competitiveness, figured he'd want to come back against the team that roughed him up. Doesn't get any softer with Rangers, Devils and Flyers in a four-day span.15.
Crosby's upcoming return is probably why Glen Sather chased Rick Nash with the passion of Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick. 16.
It won't get as much attention, but the Sharks crave an effective Martin Havlat -- and soon. He had eight points in his first eight games, went into hibernation, then came on before getting hurt December 17. San Jose needs a jolt and Havlat's got the ability to provide it.17.
Games played for Tim Thomas since 2007: 57, 54, 43 (bad season) and 57 (Cup win). He's on pace for 63, which is a little higher than Boston would like. However, the one thing that helps is March/April tends to be busy for him (13 starts in those months during 2008, 2009 and 2011), so he wont have any trouble with being leaned on now.18.
We all go crazy checking to see what teams are scouting every game before the deadline. Well, you'll still see plenty of them watching the Flyers -- eying potential UFA defenders Matt Carle, Nicklas Grossmann and Pavel Kubina. 19.
One scout who saw Nashville post-deadline: "Very deep now. A lot of different ways to play you...Not too many teams can afford to sit players like Colin Wilson and Craig Smith." (In Smith's case, the Predators seem concerned he's hitting the wall.)20.
Barry Trotz had the great line Friday, telling Joshua Cooper of The Tennessean
that he won't count on Alexander Radulov "unless I see the whites of his eyes." Nashville's been through this before. The KHL claims he's got another year under contact, but it's tough to know for sure. If he does want to come back, the NHL won't block it since he definitely owes the Predators another season. One thing to remember: the pressure put on him to stay in Russia is enormous.21.
A few of you asked why Radulov would be eligible for the playoffs. Checked with a couple of CBA experts and was told that anyone on a team's reserve list is good to go. He is on Nashville's. 22.
The Senators would like to see Zack Smith "play angry" a little more often, but Bryan Murray realizes he's got a good piece there. Heard a lot of teams have asked about him over the years, which Murray confirmed. (Of course, he wouldn't say who.)23.
If Tomas Plekanec is upset with the quality of linemates, he sure took advantage of an opportunity to play with Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty last Saturday. In a 4-1 win over the Canucks, he had an assist, was plus-two and won of 19 of 33 faceoffs (nine of 14 in the defensive zone). Not sure a team can have Plekanec and David Desharnais as their top two centres, so I'm curious to see what Montreal does here.24.
Plekanec had a good line about reports he agreed to be traded. The biggest surprise to him was that the story broke "just after I'd finished eating breakfast with Pierre Gauthier. And we didn't even talk about hockey."25.
While any potential rule changes (hybrid icing, no hand passes
) can't happen until next season, it will be interesting to see how the game is officiated after the GM meetings. They have concerns about the lack of obstruction calls, embellishment (especially against the boards) and goaltender interference. At the last meeting, their concern about Lucic/Miller led to a big change. Will that happen again?26.
There are several theories about why obstruction is being called less. The conspiracy-minded think its to slow down the game and protect against concussions. Others point to the fact there's so much attention on dangerous hits that there's less emphasis on it. A third theory is that players have adjusted. Said one GM with a laugh: "They've adjusted all right. They're smart enough to find other ways of getting away with it." 27.
In addition to hybrid icing, want to see if linesmen crack down on what type of play waives off a call. GMs think it's wildly inconsistent and an "attainable" pass (as noted in the rulebook) is morphing into anything close. One exec: "Nicklas Lidstrom has to miss the net by 40 feet to get called." (Even Red Wings fans have to think that's funny.)28.
Don't think it's a big deal CBA talks won't begin until after the season. Ideally, we'd all prefer it sooner, but Donald Fehr's baseball mentality was to surround himself with players. My guess: he wants some big stars (curious to see if Crosby will be part of it, but Zdeno Chara makes a lot of sense), a mix of nationalities and to make sure many different agents are represented. A lot of politics there.29.
Mentioned on Hotstove that the Salary Cap will be in the neighbourhood of $69 million next season ($72 if the NHLPA uses its right to escalate by five per cent as it always has). With the CBA ending Sept. 15, curious to see how teams handle this, because they expect some degree of shrinkage after free agency.
An old Inside Hockey
from the Koivu home in Montreal. If anyone deserves to play 1,000 games, it's Saku Koivu.
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