Ilya Bryzgalov (Getty Images)
Ilya Bryzgalov wants to return to the NHL next season after spending the 2015-16 season away from the game. The 35-year-old netminder said he has “a hunger to play,” and would be willing to take his compensation in bonuses, according to his agent.
Ilya Bryzgalov has played 40 NHL games in the past three seasons — and didn’t play professionally at all in 2015-16 — but that isn’t about to stop the quirky, veteran netminder from setting his sights on an NHL return.
In an interview with NHLPA.com’s Chris Lomon, Bryzgalov, 35, said a season away from the game has reignited his desire to play in the league, to face the world’s best shooters and give his 10-year-old son, a goaltender himself, the opportunity to watch his father play.
“When I told my son I was looking to play in the NHL again, his eyes lit up,” Bryzgalov told Lomon. “He was so excited. Now he’s older and he understands the game more. It would be great if he could watch me play again, maybe to learn some things that can help him.”
Bryzgalov said the time away from the rink gave him time to rest, “both spiritually and mentally,” but the post-season got his competitive juices flowing again. He told Lomon that watching the playoffs is what really lit the fire.
“I see it as a fresh start,” Bryzgalov said, via NHLPA.com. “I feel like I’m 21 again and just coming into the NHL. I have a hunger to play and to face the challenges that come with playing in this league. I’ve been missing that.”
Bryzgalov became a fan favorite because of his personality, best displayed in HBO’s 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic series leading up to a game between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. Bryzgalov’s talk about the universe — which led to him calling the solar system “humongous big” — and description of a Russian liquor were the highlights of the series and two of the most memorable moments in the show’s history.
But being a fan favorite is one thing. Being an active NHL goaltender is another. And as an unrestricted free agent, Bryzgalov’s agent, Ritch Winter, will be tasked with trying to find the veteran netminder a place to play. Winter told Lomon that Bryzgalov is “prepared to play for a modest salary and take most of his compensation in bonuses,” which makes sense given the Philadelphia Flyers are paying him $1.64 million per season for the next 11 years following a compliance buyout of his nine-year, $51 million deal in June 2013.
It’s most likely that if Bryzgalov lands anywhere, it’s on a tryout contract, but that’s no guarantee he will land a roster spot. It’s not that he has spent a full season away from the game that will make Bryzgalov’s return difficult, but that in his last few appearances in the league were ugly. That’s not in the sense that he let in a few bad goals here or there. More like he posted his worst career numbers, had a bloated goals-against average and dismal save percentage.
During an eight-game stint with the Anaheim Ducks in 2014-15, Bryzgalov went 1-4-1 and allowed 23 goals on 150 shots for a 4.19 GAA and .847 SP. He wasn’t much better during a short stint with the Edmonton Oilers during the 2013-14 season, either. His record was 5-8-5 with a 3.01 GAA and .908 SP. During that same season, however, he almost inexplicably caught fire near the end of the season with the Minnesota Wild.
In 12 games to close out the season, Bryzgalov went 7-1-3 with a 2.12 GAA, .911 SP and three shutouts. As the Wild’s starter in the post-season, though, Bryzgalov was mediocre at best. He helped Minnesota to the second round but ended the playoffs with a 3-6 record, one shutout, 2.63 GAA and .885 SP.
Even if Bryzgalov had posted stellar backup numbers or replicated his Minnesota performance in Anaheim during his stint with the Ducks, it’s hard to imagine there’s a roster he immediately fits into. There are several teams that could use a backup, including the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Florida Panthers, Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames, but each team has a goaltender in the system that could fare just as well as Bryzgalov, if not better.
But maybe, just maybe, a team is willing to take a shot on the veteran keeper. And if someone does, everyone will be watching. Regardless of his on-ice performance, Bryzgalov is always entertaining.