VOORHEES, N.J. – Ilya Bryzgalov had plenty of time this season to babble on about bears, the universe, the woods, and other arcane bits of knowledge.
He kept quiet on Thursday.
Staying out of the locker room on the day Philadelphia packed up and headed home might be the first sign the Flyers’ quirky goalie learned a lesson that he’s paid $51 million to win games and not play the room like a late night talk show host.
“His job is to stop pucks and help us win games,” Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. “It’s not Comedy Central.”
The man known around these parts as “Bryz,” still has eight more years left to figure it all out.
Bryzgalov never quite warmed to hockey-mad Philadelphia and even his own teammates were often left wondering what the Russian was really all about. He had trouble adjusting to the increased scrutiny from media and fans, and even a new style of play in front of him. Bryzgalov had a sensational March with three straight shutouts, and he set a Flyers record with a shutout streak of 249 minutes, 43 seconds. His success just failed to carry over into May.
Holmgren said he expected more out of Bryzgalov next season.
“Did he play as good as I expected this year,” Holmgren asked. “I’d probably say, no.”
In the post-season, Bryzgalov had a 3.46 goals-against average.
“He is a funny guy to talk to, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” the GM said. “He’s got some interesting concepts of life and how to walk down the road of life.”
Forward Jaromir Jagr compared Bryzgalov’s struggles in his first season to baseball player Albert Pujols having trouble going from St. Louis to Anaheim. Bryzgalov’s dry wit made him a hit on HBO’s behind-the-scenes show “24/7” leading into the Winter Classic.
“Maybe the HBO thing didn’t help much,” Jagr said. “He’s not shy of the cameras, that’s for sure.”
Bryzgalov was the lone Flyer who declined to talk to the media on Thursday.
The ones who did talk, though, echoed the same sentiment: A season that ended in the second round with a five-game loss to the New Jersey Devils was a major underachievement for a team that finished with 103 points and dominated Pittsburgh in Round 1.
“We had a decent year,” Holmgren said.
In Philadelphia, that’s not good enough. And as they move ahead, the Flyers now enter an off-season loaded with questions about the return of key veterans.
Jagr, who won a pair of Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, proclaimed this season his most enjoyable in the NHL. Yet he stopped short of saying he wanted to return to the Flyers. Jagr credited his agent, Petr Svoboda, a fomer Flyers defenceman, with steering him back to the NHL after three seasons in Russia. He’s again putting the pressure on Svoboda to find him a new home.
“I want to play in the NHL. I want to play somewhere,” he said. “Hopefully I’m going to find some team where I can play. I still love the game and I think I’m going to be better than I was this year.”
All-Star forward Scott Hartnell said he thought Jagr would be arrogant and cocky. What he found was a player who was one of the hardest workers on the team and a true mentor to a roster stocked with under-25 players.
Holmgren was noncommittal
“I’d like to have him back” Holmgren said. “But we’ll see.”
Defenceman Chris Pronger sat out most of the regular season and playoffs because of severe post-concussion syndrome. He has been sidelined since Nov. 19 and his teammates said they hadn’t talked to him in weeks.
“You always kind of felt that missing part of the dressing room,” Hartnell said.
Holmgren had no update on Pronger’s condition, though he remained optimistic the captain could return next season.
“I believe he’s going to play, but I don’t know,” Holmgren said. “I don’t have anything to back that up.”
Blossoming superstar forward Claude Giroux said he could serve next season as captain, if needed.
“If the time is right, yeah, I think so,” Giroux said.
He could be the latest in a long line of Flyers captains that includes Mike Richards. He and another former Flyer—Jeff Carter—will both play in the Western Conference finals for the Los Angeles Kings next week, while the Flyers make vacation plans.
“We missed Ritchie and Carts,” Hartnell said. “That’s a lot of points not in our lineup.”
Holmgren pointed to Jagr as the kind of player he wanted youngsters like Giroux to learn from. Even when prodded about the deals, he refused to say a more harmonious locker room this season came simply because they traded Richards and Carter last summer.
“What you’re asking is, were those guys problems? I don’t think that’s the case,” Holmgren said. “I think those guys were good, young players and we decided we needed to make changes.”
Holmgren and several other Flyers said they were rooting for the Kings to win the Cup. But with a shaky labour future in the NHL, the question remains: Could that Cup be the last one hoisted after a full season?
With the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire Sept. 15, the prospect of another tough round of negotiations means next season may not start on time. Forward Danny Briere said a harmonious relationship between the two sides left him hopeful a new deal could be struck without any game interruption.
“I just have a feeling there’s more respect for both sides,” Briere said. “That’s what gives me the confidence something will be worked out.”
That’s a concern for another day. Instead, the Flyers spent this one lamenting their missed opportunity in a wide-open playoff race to win their first championship since 1975.
“We’re here to win championships,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “So, when it comes to that, there’s disappointment.”
Other year-ends notes from the Philadelphia locker room:
—Holmgren expected the salary cap to be set at about $69 million.
—Holmgren gave oft-injured forward James van Riemsdyk a “huge incomplete” for this season: “There was something wrong with him all the time.”
—Holmgren wants to re-sign unrestricted free-agent defenceman Matt Carle. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t work out a deal.”
—Holmgren talked with Kimmo Timonen and said the veteran defenceman wants to return for the final year of his contract.