Insert Phoenix-rising pun here
Promising goalie is mired in backup position, then gets dealt away for next to nothing and inspires team to become a whole lot better. We’ve heard this story before; in fact, it was just a few seasons ago where Miikka Kiprusoff was mired in the backup role for the San Jose Sharks. While whispers around the team had Kiprusoff’s talents pegged as even better than starter Evgeni Nabokov, Kiprusoff’s one chance at taking the role (with Nabokov in a contract dispute) was blown with a horrendous effort in the disaster 2002-2003 season.
Soon after, no one wanted to touch Kiprusoff with a 20-foot pole…no one, that is, except for his ex-coach recently relocated to Calgary. A second-round pick later and you know the rest of the story: awards, ridiculous stats, and a trip to the Stanley Cup final.
Will Ilya Bryzgalov take the Phoenix Coyotes to the Cup final in his first season? Probably no, but you never know in today’s NHL. Still, Bryzgalov’s move to the desert via waivers brings up some echoes of the Kiprusoff transaction. The difference lay in the circumstances: Kiprusoff’s stock was at an all-time low with an awful 2002-2003 season where he earned the nickname Kipru-Soft among Sharks fans while Bryzgalov has won a few playoff series and been mired in a minor goalie controversy out in Anaheim. The similarities, however, are there: like Kiprusoff, Bryzgalov is approaching his prime during the move and was snagged for next to nothing.
Bryzgalov’s talent has never been questioned. His sustainability? That’s another issue. As with all backups-turned-starters, there’s never any certainty as to who can carry the ball for the long haul. Kiprusoff is at one end of the spectrum while countless others who showed promise at one time — Brian Boucher, Steve Shields, Kevin Weekes, Dan Cloutier — have ranged anywhere from disappointment to disaster.
Why is Bryzgalov’s journey going to be any different? For one thing, Bryzgalov’s done his share of consistent playing while Jean-Sebastian Giguere’s been injured. That means that Bryzgalov has replicated the starter’s role by successfully putting together streaks of games, and his games-played totals are hefty for a backup role: 31 games in 2005-2006 and 27 games in 2006-2007. During the 2005-2006 season, Bryzgalov was also the anchor for 11 playoff games.
It helps that Bryzgalov’s got a solid (but underrated) defense group in front of him. Ed Jovanovski’s playing almost to the same level as his heyday in Vancouver, Derek Morris has been surprisingly consistent, and Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek are living up to their potential. Nick Boynton’s not as valuable in the post-lockout era as he used to be, but he still provides a steady, physical presence, while Matt Jones and Brendan Bell can be trusted despite their relative inexperience. It’s a step down from having Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer guarding the blueline, but as a group, the Coyotes’ defense is better than most people think.
Will Bryzgalov keep up his blazing hot start (1.23 GAA, .954 save percentage)? Probably not. After all, even the best falter at some time. However, Bryzgalov’s career stats show that he’s consistent, and as he enters the prime of his career with a young team that’s a lot hungrier than it was before, the cards are lined up for some surprising success out in the desert. Strong teams are built from the crease out, and with Phoenix’s emerging blueline supporting Bryzgalov, it’s up to the young forwards, led by Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzel, to come through and give the Coyotes some more offensive weapons besides Shane Doan.
Now if only someone can get Wayne Gretzky to stop all that anger from behind the bench, things might really be looking rosy in Phoenix.
Filed under: Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix Coyotes | 1 Comment