- Craig Custance
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- On Tuesday, when chatting about his goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren started listing all the challenges Bryzgalov faced when he made the transition from the Phoenix Coyotes to the Flyers. Besides the pressure that comes with a giant new contract, Holmgren mentioned the huge adjustment of joining a new team. He pointed out that Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell didn't just jump in seamlessly to wild success in Philadelphia.
"Scotty Hartnell went 19 games before scoring a goal when he came from Nashville to the Flyers," Holmgren said.
There's infinitely more scrutiny that comes with being the goalie of the Flyers compared to the goalie in Phoenix. And then there's the history. Through no fault of his own, Bryzgalov has to deal with the history of goaltending failures in that city.
"It seems to be Philadelphia and goaltending seems to be written about a lot," Holmgren said. "I don't know if we talk about it as much as it's written about."
On Tuesday night, Bryzgalov won again. And again, it was a shutout -- his third in a row. His shutout streak is at 196:13, and he's doing it at a time when his team needs him most, with injuries depleting the Philadelphia defense.
With the playoffs closing in, Bryzgalov has been at his best with a 6-0-0 record and 0.82 goals-against average in March. His save percentage is .971. He entered the month with two shutouts this season and now that total is at six. It's been an incredible run, and for Holmgren it's an indication that the struggles that come with a major transition are in the past.
"He's just more than anything else just settled in," Holmgren said. "He's finally settling in."
Bryzgalov also learned to focus strictly on the game rather than examining the expanses of the universe and all the other philosophy he offered up earlier this season. Goaltending coach Jeff Reese has worked closely with Bryzgalov to make sure his mind is in the right place during the stretch run.
"He likes to talk," Holmgren said. "Now he's just focusing on talking about hockey and the game itself. The one thing we do stress with him is it's time to get down to business and the business of winning hockey games and not all the other stuff. I think he's done that."
Before most of the general managers emerged from Tuesday's meeting, deputy commissioner Bill Daly stopped to chat with a couple of us reporters waiting at the resort. When the topic of Nashville's Alexander Radulov came up, he pointed out that any general manager with serious objections about the decision to allow him to return this season is motivated more by the competitive disadvantage it creates than any issue specific to the rules.
So it was not entirely shocking that it was David Poile's Central Division colleagues who seemed the most disturbed about the reality that Radulov could be back in the NHL this season. Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, typically one of the best talkers in the game, offered up a "no comment." St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong had some of the most pointed comments.
"[Radulov] gets his cake and eats it too. I understand Nashville's point of view but from Radulov's point of view, he wins on all fronts," Armstrong said. "It's probably something that might get closed off moving forward, but moving forward doesn't help this year."
Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said his biggest issue with allowing Radulov to play this season and burn a year off his entry-level deal is that it sets bad precedent.
"To me, that's the bigger concern," Bowman said. "You're setting precedent that it's OK for guys to just leave and come back when they feel like playing if they don't want to play through the grind of November, December, January, February and want to come back in March. That's the issue there."
Waiver rules and loopholes aside, to me the interesting thing is the question of just how good the Predators will be on the ice if they can add a dynamic goal-scorer like Radulov. This is a team that is already a Stanley Cup contender and Poile has consistently contended that Radulov is the best player not playing in the NHL. Plugging him into the lineup could propel Nashville into the role of Western Conference favorite. At the very least, it would give the Predators their best shot at a long playoff run in franchise history, with only the Peter Forsberg team in the conversation.
But Poile knows Radulov doesn't come with any guarantees.
"I was pretty pumped when we had [Peter] Forsberg and [Paul] Kariya. If you're going to win in this league, you have to be good and you have to be lucky," Poile said. "We were not lucky at all."
Bowman pointed out that plugging in a player at this point in the season could disrupt the positive chemistry Barry Trotz has carefully cultivated with his hard-working group.
"He certainly gives them some offensive pop," Bowman said. "To assume anything might be a little foolish. You don't know, chemistry-wise. Can he just jump in? Maybe he can fit in with the other Russians they got there and they'd be a great mixture. You don't really know."
Ultimately, it's not a question that can be answered now. That much Holland would say.
"All that gets judged in June, doesn't it? Right?" said Holland, whose Red Wings appear headed for a first-round showdown with the Predators. It should be interesting.
• Holland wanted to get a look at Brendan Smith during the second half of the season so the Red Wings knew exactly what they had in the talented young defensemen heading into next season. But injuries on the Detroit blue line have meant that Smith has been a regular in the lineup lately. He's also making a positive impression on his general manager.
I asked Holland whether there was any chance that Smith could earn a spot in the playoff top six if the entire defense is healthy. The Red Wings aren't ruling that out at this point. "If Mike Babcock feels he's one of the six defensemen that gives us the best chance to win, he's in the lineup," Holland said. "I don't care who the six are. I would say he's making a great case for himself."
If Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids misses the playoffs, Holland said Smith will have a spot with the black aces during the playoffs.
• Bryzgalov isn't the only high-profile free agent settling in with his new team. The New York Rangers' Brad Richards had another strong game in the team's 4-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes last night. As Katie Strang pointed out, New York's top line of Richards, Carl Hagelin and Marian Gaborik combined for nine points last night. Richards has five goals in his last three games and 11 points so far in March, the most of any month this season.
"Richie's seeing the ice better. Obviously, he's the key," coach John Tortorella told Strang. "That's the biggest strength of his game, is seeing the ice. I think he feels more confident there."
• One more note about Radulov: The assumption that he's going to automatically come over now that he's out of the KHL playoffs isn't necessarily correct. As Poile pointed out, all the hurdles have been removed for him to play with Nashville this season. There's the motivation of being able to burn a year off his entry-level deal to reach restricted free agency, and Poile has long believed that Radulov wants to play with the best players in the world.
But even then, when I asked him how realistic it was that he plays this season, Poile wasn't sure. "That's a good question. I've been down this road each of the last three or four years," he said. "In my gut, if there's going to be a time, it should be now."
Poile hasn't spoken with Radulov since he was knocked out of the playoffs, only with his agent, Jay Grossman. If Radulov does play with Nashville, Poile is optimistic that it won't be a short-term arrangement. "To me, I would think that if he comes back now, I would certainly be thinking there's a chance he would stay," Poile said.
Craig Custance writes that Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has finally settled in with the Flyers and is setting a torrid pace in March -- just in time for the team's stretch run. Plus, the debate among GMs over Alexander Radulov's potential return.