After making the playoffs by way of a tie-breaker with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season, the Minnesota Wild have all but clinched a playoff berth thanks in large part to the stellar performance of trade deadline arrival Ilya Bryzgalov.
No one in their right mind would have thought Minnesota had won the trade deadline lottery with a misunderstood goalie acquired for the price of a measly spare 2014 fourth round pick. Even with illness and injury to franchise top goalies Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom, rookie Darcy Kuemper had recently risen to the occasion, giving many reason to think this was a move designed to cover Minnesota’s tail just in case. In a way, that’s exactly what it was designed to do, but did Wild GM Chuck Fletcher have another card hidden up his sleeve?
In 10 games with Minnesota, Bryzgalov has been one of the league’s elite, going 6-0-3 with a 1.67 goals against average, a .929 save percentage and three shutouts. After being the side show in Philadelphia and peppered more so than my skillet potatoes in Edmonton, Bryz seems to have finally found a coaching system he can slide into seamlessly. The Wild isn’t a team that’s going to score a lot of goals. Does it have the capability, talent and skill to do so? Most definitely, but the team really seems to thrive within the confines of a defensive-minded system. Minnesota’s newest No. 1 goaltender should be very familiar with something of the like, having played parts of four seasons with the defensively disciplined Phoenix Coyotes.
Compared to the past few seasons, Bryz is in a very comfortable position with Minnesota. He’s got a very good defense in front of him, including one of the best defensemen currently in the game in Wild alternate captain Ryan Suter. In addition, Minnesota has some names in the forwards corps that know a thing or two as far as putting the biscuit in the basket is concerned. Most importantly, here he can be the No. 1 guy in a market that is, shall we say, a little more friendly than the eternal goalie punishment of Philly or the Gretzky-loving Oilers.
But does Bryzgalov want to keep playing professional hockey let alone within the Wild organization?
Earlier this week, Pioneer Press beat writer Chad Graff tweeted a couple of interesting comments from the enigmatic goaltender:
Ilya Bryzgalov said he doesn't know whether he wants to play hockey next year.
— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) April 6, 2014
Asked Bryzgalov about upcoming free agency. "It doesn't mean anything because I'm not sure I want to play next year. Maybe yes, maybe no."
— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) April 6, 2014
Oh, Bryz. If that’s the case, it’s a shame. He seems t0 have really taken to the team and it says something about how important a player is to a team when a new arrival like himself is invited to a captain’s only breakfast. Minnesota has a talented roster, but–quite frankly–if the Wild are going to make a deep run, it’s all but guaranteed it’s going to be because of the play of Bryzgalov.
You see it every year–an average offensive team rises through the ranks on the back of its dominant goaltender. Last year, it was the Boston Bruins and Tuukka Rask. In 2012, it was the Los Angeles Kings and Jonathan Quick. In 2011, it was Boston and Tim Thomas. While Boston and Rask fell just two wins short against the Chicago Blackhawks, you get the idea. A good offense and defense gets you into the show, but it’s great goaltending that wins championships.
That brings us to another point. Even if they were all healthy, of Minnesota’s goalies, Bryzgalov is the only one that could even possibly take the Wild all the way. Harding is great, but there’s no way a coach puts a playoff run on the line with his questionable health. Backstrom is, when healthy, slightly above average at best. And Kuemper is just too young to withstand a deep run without a solid second option ready in the wings.
Bryz’s acquisition may have been designed for him to be that temporary No. 2, but it sets the club up in a good position should Minnesota choose to re-sign him. One thing is for sure–with his undisputed reemergence, the Wild is finally in prime position to make a serious showing as a first-time legitimate Stanley Cup contender. For now, Minnesota Wild fans just need to bask in and savor the Bryzgalov Era, because there’s no knowing how long it may last.