Should Flyers Fans Worry About Bryzgalov's Piss-Poor Performance in the KHL? >

Friday, Nov. 09, 2012

I am not really one who's been paying much attention to our players overseas during this NHL labor battle. You can discredit or question my fanhood because of it, but in all honesty my loyalty remains with the National Hockey League and North American hockey. As long as Philadelphia's skaters stay healthy in their respective Euro leagues, then I stay happy. 

That doesn't mean I haven't been proud to hear that Giroux and Briere are whooping tail for Eisbären Berlin, or haven't gotten pissed off when I discovered Wayne Simmonds is still subjected to racist taunts by a Czech attendance. I guess I just expect our professional players to succeed in their lesser pedigree leagues. But what about our star players who haven't done so well?

Ilya Bryzgalov -- our emotional headcase in net -- has been guarding twine in the Kontinental Hockey League in his home country of Russia. He's currently suiting up for the CSKA Moskva, which is one of 25-clubs in that guild. KHL hockey is extremely different from our North American style, that much goes without saying. For starters, 20-teams' rinks are that of International dimensions, while the remaining 5 play on smaller rinks, similar to the dimensions of Finnish (SM-liga) rinks, closer to the NHL sized ponds. 

Yea, it's insanely hokey hockey those Reds play. 

But CSKA Moskva is not one of those teams who partake on smaller home ice. Bryz tends net on International sized ice whose dimensions are 210-ft long by 98-ft wide. The width is what I want to discuss most in this article, seeing as I think it is the most relevant to Bryzgalov's struggles in the KHL. 

I want to begin by saying I am not an Ilya Bryzgalov apologist. I have never, nor will I ever, subscribe to an endless list of excuses that foolishly "explain" why any Flyer is playing badly. I do however try to prevent myself from attacking an issue with raw emotion minus any objectivity. 

Most of the time I fail miserably at that effort. I am, after all, a very fervid hockey fan. But since I could not give any less of a damn about the KHL, its players, or their games, my dispassion has allowed me to focus on Bryzgalov's recent piss-poor performance with a completely leveled perspective. 

Ilya is currently cloaked with a 2.92 GAA and a .892 save percentage in 23-games played for CSKA Moskva. It's been a self-evident circus in net for Bryz, which only mirrors his most recent 2011-12 season with the Philadelphia Flyers. 

You figured after last year, #30 would return to the ice more focused and knowing what to expect from the pressures of being a goaltender in the City of Brotherly Love. Fast-forward to the present, and instead of watching our beloved Orange & Black, we're forced to read distressing updates on Bryz in the KHL during this work stoppage. 

One more case of déjà vu slaps us through the face; Bryzgalov is victim to major drama with the KHL's media. Due to his lousy stats between the pipes, Ilya is once again shredded apart in the funny papers, and Bryz is less than appreciative --

"What do you want me to say? You’ve been writing filth about me and now you are asking for an interview? My wife forbids me to talk… My mom and dad, too. Ask them," said Ilya as he snapped back at a reporting crew in the post-game dressing room (video below).

It's safe to guess that Bryz's relationship with the sports journalists has derailed just as it did last winter. I don't know any of the Russian media heads over there, but if they're anything like Panaccio, Seravalli & Co. here in Philly, I wouldn't blame Bryzgalov for raining loogies all over them as they entered through the doors. 

And speaking of blame; Should Flyers fans worry about Ilya's substandard outings in the KHL? I mean, there will be a day when the NHL's gates are lifted and the players return home. If Bryz has failed to show any sign of improvement from the 2011-12 season, then we could potentially experience another spectacle in the cage.

Is it an honest concern? Absolutely. 

Bryzgalov will still earn an asinine amount of money off his contract with Philadelphia, regardless of what contractual limitations are instituted in the new CBA. Just like last year -- The more money earned, the more expectation follows suit. So, watching Ilya fail overseas is not what we'd call a "comforting observation."

This is where my dispassion for KHL hockey comes in. 

My interest in the Kontinental Hockey League is non-existent. It's about the same I have for reality television shows about loudmouthed, dipshit Italians. But since our franchise goalie is blundering in that league, some of my attention is invested. Especially when I consider a handful of key factors that could be credited towards his poor statistics. 

Ilya has not played competitive hockey outside of North America in over 10-years. He guarded his last net on International ice back in 2000-01 for Lada Togliatti.....a hockey team in the Russian Superleague. As I stated before, European ponds are different in size, and it's much more difficult to acclimate your game while transitioning from smaller rinks to larger rinks. Especially for the puck-stoppers. 

One of Bryzgalov's greatest NHL attributes is his size. Even on his knees, when Ilya skates out of the crease to challenge an attack, it's his size that virtually eliminates the net behind him and forces the opposition to adapt and re-strategize on the whim. Mixed with an effective back-check from the forwards and defensemen, that chance is dismissed and turned back up ice. 

The NHL rink limits how wide an attack comes into the defensive zone. And after spending over a decade defending against it from his net, Ilya Bryzgalov familiarized his style with the opposition's finite offensive contingencies. 

On the KHL's ice, the lateral attack on net is still limited by the rink's width, but because the rink is wider than North American ice, Bryzgalov's lateral movement is universally challenged even more. All of a sudden Bryzgalov's greatest attribute absorbs even more responsibility and difficulty. Instead of exiting his crease to challenge the attack, Ilya must first anticipate the expansive paths taken from the opposition who do not (yet) possess the puck. 

Yes, the same could be said in the NHL, but again, on a wider playing surface, this becomes more radical. 

While I'm putting the opposing chance under the microscope, a wider rink also means there is plenty more room to generate a cycling game in Bryzgalov's zone. If you recall, the New Jersey Devils defeated our Flyers in the SemiFinal round last post-season because of their imperious forechecking and cycling game

As long as a team is effective cycling the puck in their opponent's zone, they control the tempo of the match, as well as break the opposition down from a durability standpoint. Philadelphia had a plethora of problems eliminating Jersey's cycling game due to the tremendous absence of a right-handed defenseman. If the "cycling" strategy is used in the KHL -- and I don't see why it wouldn't -- then perhaps it's being used (or been used) against Bryzgalov and CSKA Moskva.

Moskva employs a total of 11-blue liners. Only 3 of which are right-handed shooters. All but one defenseman (Maxim Kondratyev) on that roster have zero NHL experience, and considering the flood of NHLers who signed in the KHL, Bryz is facing a higher purebred of talent in the opposing forwards while getting help from a KHL-caliber blue line. If executed against Moskva forcefully, cycling the puck in Bryzgalov's zone has become a nightmare to his east-west flow between the pipes.

Whether Ilya's lateral movement is legitimately awful or not, the fact's still being disputed from a grander scale. And considering the fetal time spent in his reestablished role on Euro ice, his poor performances could be victim to an all-inclusive spectrum of paralyzing problems.

Speaking of "problems"; We all remember the chip-fracture Bryzgalov suffered at the end of the 2011-12 regular season. Though it only cost him a few games on the injured list, the pain affected his movement in our first Playoff series versus the Pittsburgh Penguins. I am convinced that was the largest reason why we saw the lamp light up behind him more times than a disco ball. 

Chip-fractures can come back to haunt an athlete as a chronic issue. Depending on where it is, the ache and pain can severely influence a player's production. Seeing how the chip-fracture was suffered in Bryzgalov's foot, the whole chronic idea is not far fetched by any stretch of the imagination. 

I have absolutely no proof that says Bryz is suffering from chronic foot pain. This is all speculative from my outlook. But if this were truly the case at all, then that certainly gives Flyers fans a reason to worry about Ilya's long-term status in our net. 

If one or more of our players are doing well in their Euro league, there's no reason to get overly excited (from an NHL practical sense). And the same can be said if that player(s) is doing poorly in his Euro league -- there's no reason to worry too much. I haven't accounted any emotional pressures that could be trialing Bryzgalov's performance. After all, he is a very fragile mind, and this NHL Lockout could be carrying more weight on his enthusiasm than we (the fans) expect. 

Once again, I am not trying to come up with excuses for Ilya's terrible stats in the KHL. Maybe, for whatever reason, he's sincerely become an average ice hockey goalie. But that's unlikely, and everything I've listed here is more feasible....

.....I hope.

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