EDMONTON — Ilya Bryzgalov’s strategy was apparent as he met the Edmonton media for the first time on Monday. Forget the past, hope everyone else forgets the past, and if that doesn’t work, then deny the past. So the average player-media exchange went something like this:
Reporter “Do you see this as a second chance for you?”
Bryzgalov “What do you mean?”
Reporter “Just, the way things ended up in Philadelphia…”
Bryzgalov “I never lost my first chance, you know.”
So it turns out that Bryzgalov, a contrarian if nothing else, was not blackballed by hockey these past few months. He just took a little longer to find a contract after that compliance-buyout thing in Philadelphia. The whole situation was completely out of his control, actually, which must include a save percentage that ranked 59th and 55th among NHL goalies the past two seasons. Does being paid $23 million over 14 years just to go away bother him? “Not at all,” Bryzgalov says, breaking into a big smile. “You know, it’s out of my control. I can’t do anything about it. It’s just like, ‘Ok, guys. If you decide… to make that move, I’ve just got to accept it and move on.’”
So perhaps this is a place to start, when trying to get inside one of the smartest, most enigmatic, and at times proficient goalies in the National Hockey League. Is Bryzgalov easily misunderstood? Well, almost every other player would offer some humility at the prospect of being paid that much money to leave town. Bryzgalov offers none, and comes across like he had no part to play in the decision—even though his numbers in Philly were poor. It’s quotes like these that get him into trouble, not the Mr. Universe stuff on HBO, or the quirky stuff about being scared of bears. It’s the fact that, when Sergei Bobrovsky was chosen to start the 2012 Winter Classic, Bryzgalov loudly gathered the media, announced who the Flyers starting goalie was, and stated that his mindset would be to make sure he didn’t forget his thermos in the morning “Get some nice tea and enjoy the bench,” he said. In hockey culture, that is called putting one’s self ahead of the team. It polarized Bryzgalov and his Flyers teammates, as it would in any of 30 NHL dressing rooms.
There is a sliding scale of how much drama one player is allowed to bring to an NHL room compared to his value to the team’s performance. As Bryzgalov’s play slipped, the drama increased. After an .887 save percentage during the 2012 playoffs, his value had expired. There is no advanced stat for this, but we can tell you unequivocally, this is how things work in the NHL. Sports, however, is the Promised Land for those seeking a second chance, and Bryzgalov has found his on an Oilers team that had a struggling starter in Devan Dubnyk and a backup (Jason Labarbera) who can perhaps no longer play. They need goaltending; he needs—or at least would prefer to have—a job. It’s a perfect match. “This is an intelligent guy,” says Oilers coach Dallas Eakins. “There is absolutely no concern about how he was framed in a TV show. It was a turbulent time. It’s over.”
And if Bryzgalov can shed his rap as being a flake? That would be fine too. “You have a great opportunity right now,” Bryzgalov, 33, instructs the local media. “Have me here and at end of the season (judge me). By yourself, not from the people from the side who say something. Because they might bring to this judgment some personal feelings. You tell me after this season, what do you think.”
After bad reports from inside the Flyers room, it will be more important what his teammates here think. Eakins has mined all of his sources and claims he was told that Bryzgalov will be a fine teammate. I heard different, and asked veteran Ryan Smyth what Bryzgalov’s priorities should be upon joining his latest team here in Edmonton. “Put the team before yourself," he says. "And, absolutely, stop the puck. But first and foremost, be a team-first guy.”
His history is, when things are going well in between the pipes, they go well off the ice too. So if Bryzgalov, who will watch Dubnyk get the start against Columbus on Tuesday, plays well, this should work out just fine. If Dubnyk somehow finds a way to be the better goaltender however, and does not allow Bryzgalov to steal the mantle—not a prediction, simply a possibility—then we will find out if there is a new Bryzgalov. “Is there anything you would like to change?” he’s asked. To that, Bryzgalov offered a heavy sigh. “What exactly do you mean? My quality of life? What I’m going to eat in the restaurant?” he says. “You’ve got to be yourself. I’m going to be myself. And after, guys, you can make the statement and judgments of me. I’m just going to be myself.”
That will either be the solution, or it will be the problem. No one is quite sure yet which is which.