GLENDALE, Ariz. - By signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a US$12.75-million, three-year contract, the Phoenix Coyotes believe they've solved their goaltending problems for a long time.
Perhaps more important, they've sent a signal to a skeptical fan base that they're committed to winning.
"You can't win at this level without a first-rate goaltender," coach Wayne Gretzky said after practice on Wednesday morning, one day after Bryzgalov's deal was announced. "It just shows the commitment. It's the right thing to do. This organization will do whatever it takes to keep a guy here.
"It's just a nice, positive message, not only for the fans but for the players in the locker-room."
The signing came as a surprise for a financially strapped franchise, which reportedly expects to lose $30 million this season. The team shed high-priced players in trades last season and decided to go with its young talent this year.
But Phoenix realized it had discovered a gem in Bryzgalov, acquired off waivers from the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 17. Instead of taking a chance on losing Bryzgalov to free agency at year's end, the Coyotes began negotiating with him in December.
"It's not really a stretch, but we're still not making money as a franchise, so when we commit to pay somebody $4 million a year, right now that means that (owner) Jerry Moyes has to front that money," chief executive officer Jeff Shumway said.
"This is the last piece to demonstrate to people that we intend to keep our word," Shumway said. "We intend to build a good franchise here in Arizona, a winning franchise here in Arizona. If all the right things fall in the right place, we'll bring a Stanley Cup here someday."
Stanley Cup teams tend to have stellar goalies, and Bryzgalov has been stellar so far.
He has appeared in 28 games for Phoenix, going 16-10-2 with a 2.33 goals-against average. Counting his time with Anaheim early in the season, Bryzgalov is 18-13-3 with a 2.38 goals-against average.
He has an NHL career record of 43-33-10 with a goals-against average of 2.44 in 97 games.
The 27-year-old Russian has played a critical role in the Coyotes' emergence as a playoff contender in the Western Conference. The Coyotes, who play host to Nashville on Thursday night, are in 11th place in the Western Conference, three points out of a playoff spot.
"He makes our team better and he makes our franchise stronger," Gretzky said.
The Coyotes, who moved to the desert from Winnipeg in 1996, have long existed on the fringe of a crowded sports market. Their profile has shrunk during a five-year absence from the playoffs, along with their once-loyal fan base.
Although the club gave captain Shane Doan a $22.75-million, five-year contract, many fans wondered if the team was willing to pay for other players.
"Our season-ticket holders were saying, 'Are you going to sign Bryzgalov?"' president Doug Moss said. "There was a lot of skepticism, so this was a very important message to our fans. Before, this franchise would have let a guy like this go."
The signing brought immediate attention to a team starved for media coverage. TV crews from local stations showed up at Wednesday morning's skate at Jobing.com Arena.
Bryzgalov seemed a little surprised by the stir, blinking into the camera lights after stepping off the ice. He said he didn't hesitate to sign a long-term deal with Phoenix.
"I like it here," said Bryzgalov. "I feel very comfortable with the coaches, management. I think it's a great place. It's a young team. I think we have a bright future. It's my decision that I want to be a part of that."
Phoenix's goaltending position was uncertain heading into the season, and the Ducks' decision to waive Bryzgalov worked out well for the Coyotes.
Bryzlagov appeared in five playoff games for Anaheim last season, posting a 3-1-0 record with a 2.25 GAA.
But when Anaheim signed Jean-Sebastien Giguere to a four-year extension, it was apparent Bryzgalov was headed elsewhere. When no trade could be made, the club decided to waive him.
Bryzgalov was part of Russia's 2002 bronze medal Olympic team and played three games for his home country in the 2004 World Cup. He was Anaheim's second-round draft pick - the 44th selection overall - in 2000.