MacTavish, Oilers roll the dice on Bryzgalov

There’s nothing better than a good old-fashioned shake up. And there's no doubting the Oilers did that Friday by signing mercurial goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Ilya Bryzgalov, apropos to pretty much nothing at the time, once opined on the horror of perhaps one day having to play for the Winnipeg Jets. "You don’t want to go to Winnipeg, right?” Bryzgalov said. "Not many people live there, not many Russian people there. Plus it’s cold. There’s no excitement except the hockey. No park, no entertaining for the families, for the kids. It’s going to be tough life for your family."

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On Friday, the man they call "Mr. Universe" thanks to some cosmic musings on HBO’s 24/7, agreed to a one-year free agent deal to play in Edmonton, a Western Canadian city that had received a fresh inch of snow that same morning. If you’re thinking that bringing Bryzgalov into the dressing room of the young Oilers is an act of desperation by Oilers GM Craig MacTavish, you’re right on track. The Oilers are desperate for goaltending, parked dead last in the west with only 10 points in their first 17 games.

Reminiscent of former Toronto Maple Leaf (Planet) Al Iafrate, there are few cats this odd in the world of hockey today. But reached on Friday night at a college hockey game near Philadelphia, MacTavish says that Bryzgalov may prove to be a changed man. "He’s highly motivated (to change)," MacTavish says of the 33-year-old goalie, who has not received any offers nor played a period of hockey since being a compliance buy-out of the Flyers over the summer. "I’ve had quite a few conversations with Ilya over the last while, as early as the draft. I’ve got a pretty good level of satisfaction that he’s going to be a surprise for us in terms of his character.

"I believe in the potential of people."

While Roberto Luongo was tweeting,

the rest of the hockey world was wondering about Bryzgalov’s off-ice presence in Edmonton. Described as a wing nut, flamboyant, and surely the loosest cannon to darken the NHL goalie unions’ door in some time, the baggage that Bryzgalov brings to Edmonton is enough to fill a sea can. "He’s certainly saying everything that we want to hear," MacTavish replies. "I’ve had all those discussions with Ilya that you just mentioned. He’s given me satisfaction that he’s going to be fine."

As foreboding as his dysfunctional personality, however, is Bryzgalov’s recent play. His numbers were on a downward slope in Philadelphia, where he posted pedestrian save percentages of .900 and .909 in his past two regular seasons, and a horrendous .887 in 11 playoff games two springs ago. The goalie market is tough, however, when the rest of the league knows you don’t have any. And Devan Dubnyk’s .878 save percentage meant every other GM saw the MacTavish coming. So Edmonton’s GM went from a position of weakness to a position of vulnerability, with a signing that puts the Oilers’ desperation on display for all to see.

But really, how much worse can things get in Edmonton? The Oilers have not played well, but it has been impossible to gauge a team when the goaltending is this poor. "In watching our team, the last little while I’m reasonably pleased and satisfied we’re on the right track," MacTavish says. "I see a lot of progress. The team is moving in the right direction. We played well (in a 4-2 loss at Tampa), and we played well in Florida (winning in overtime). I think we’re turning a corner here."

Dubnyk, who posted a save percentage of .920 last season, was expected to carry the load. Instead, he has given Edmonton such shaky goaltending that the team’s confidence is impossibly low. Every mistake made by a young forward ends up in the back of the net. And even when they outplayed Tampa Bay on the road, outshooting the Lighting 40-26, Edmonton still lost 4-2.

Dubnyk will carry the ball for the next little while, as Bryzgalov—despite practicing with the ECHL team in Las Vegas for a short stint—has not played a game since the end of last season. He will join the team in Philadelphia, where the Oilers play Saturday (Sportsnet West, 11 am MT), and then head for AHL Oklahoma City to wear off some rust.

MacTavish is sure of that much. After that, with Ilya Bryzgalov, it has always been a roll of the dice.

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