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Meltzer's Musings: Bryzgalov, Hartnell, Wellwood

April 22, 2013, 10:39 AM ET [357 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
When the Flyers sort through the rubble of their disappointing 2013 season and begin to plan their roster for next year, there will be some difficult decisions to make. The buyout writing seems to be on the wall for Danny Briere. The team also has to decide whether to exercise a second compliance buyout this summer or wait until the summer of 2014.

The second potential amnesty target that always gets mentioned is goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. There have been recent reports that management prefers to give Bryzgalov one more full season before making an amnesty decision on him. We'll see.

Last year, it was said of Bryzgalov that he is at his best when he gets a lot of work and knows he's going to play no matter what. Along with salary cap savings, the "Bryz thrives on a very heavy workload" rationale got used frequently after the Flyers traded Sergei Bobrovsky to Columbus and downgraded their backup goaltending with the re-signing of Michael Leighton (who got into all of one game before being traded to Columbus at the deadline).

After another inconsistent season, the rationale has changed. Now it's said by some that Bryzgalov got overworked this season. The corresponding line that gets uttered is that the acquisition of former Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason from Columbus is that having competition for the starting job can push Bryzgalov to stay better focused.

During some of the busiest stretches of the current season, Bryzgalov may indeed have been a little tired when he was playing three games in four days or four games in six. On the whole, though, I don't think fatigue has been a major issue. In a normal schedule, teams would be at midseason after a comparable number of games played.

Of all the Flyers on-ice problems this year, I put goaltending beneath inadequate team defense, inconsistent offense and subpar five-on-five performance. I'd put goaltending letdowns ahead of injuries and an exceptionally tough early schedule.

Here's the issue: Goaltending hasn't been the problem but Bryzgalov's salary level and contract length dictates that he must be a bigger part of the solution. There are things within his control that he must do better. I think after a very strong start in the first three weeks or so, Bryzgalov's play was spotty in its own right.

Of course, playing behind a mistake-prone team defense didn't help things one bit. Defense and goaltending are symbiotic. When one is bad for too long, it inevitably drags the other down with it. When one is stellar, it can inspire the other to perform a little better.

Bryzgalov has not allowed all that many outright soft goals this season, where he simply flubbed routine shots. Rather, he's had issues with shots that may not have been easy saves but which the high-end goaltenders of NHL generally stop.

Bryzgalov has some problems on plays that start from behind his net. He does not make good use of his stick and he is not particularly swift in moving from post to post. On side angle shot, he will sometimes not be square to the shooter and leave room upstairs on the short side. He's had problems stopping breakaways and one-on-one duels to the point that as soon as an attacker breaks loose and has a clear path to the net, it is a pleasant surprise if the teams aren't facing off at center ice moments later.

As far as the loud whispers go that Bryzgalov is unpopular in the locker room, winning takes care of that problem. To cite just one example, being widely disliked by teammates did not stop Tom Barrasso from backstopping the Pittsburgh Penguins to two straight Stanley Cups. When teams win, the disparate personalities coexist fine. It's when a team is losing that personality clashes become an issue and fingers get pointed.

Looking ahead to next year, it is a bigger risk for the Flyers to go into the season with Mason and an off-season acquisition (which would likely be a budget-friendly veteran or an unproven young goalie blocked by a veteran starter) as their goaltending tandem than it would be to have Mason as their Plan B if Bryzgalov falters.

Even so, I'm still not totally convinced that the Flyers will NOT buy out Bryzgalov this offseason. It would be a very Flyer-like thing to do to pull some alternative plan out of left field. For instance, if Tim Thomas opts to return to the NHL next season, couldn't you see the Flyers jettisoning Bryzgalov and bringing in Thomas on a one-year contract?

I'm not saying I advocate the Flyers doing that. I'm saying that, when it comes to the Flyers, one should expect the unexpected.


Scott Hartnell has had a miserable season this year, which can mostly be chalked up to the broken foot he suffered early in the season and to the vicissitudes of a shortened-season. Most folks are willing to call this year a write-off season for the power forward, who attained a career-high 37 goals last year and who routinely pots about 25 goals in an average full season.

Hartnell has seven goals in 29 games this year, which would be shade under a 20-goal pace if he played 80 to 82 games (as he had in ever previous season in Philly). While that doesn't sound too far below his pre-career year norm, those seven goals have come in four games. He's had a two-goal game and a recent hat trick in Montreal. Overall, there have been a lot of goose eggs for Hartnell even when he skated on the Claude Giroux line and has continued to be used on the first power play unit.

When it comes to Hartnell's game, one must always take the good with the bad. He's going to take a lot of bad penalties, and those penalties will increase in volume when he's frustrated. He's going to have some point droughts even in his better seasons. Like most power forwards, he's never going to be confused with a Selke Trophy candidate in his defensive play although he's not bad for a player who performs his role.

Apart from goals, what the Flyers have not gotten enough from Hartnell is the good things he's brought in the recent past. He's not creating many opposition turnovers with his forechecking (in part, because he's often been late to arrive, and the puck is already gone). He's not making space for his linemates, and not creating as many power play opportunities for his team as he did a year ago.

In fairness to Hartnell, a 30-game sample is not much to go by. That's especially true when the player probably came back a little too soon from a broken weight-bearing bone in his foot. He's never been a great skater and his tendency to fall down is well known, but he's not normally as slow as he looked for the first month after returning to the lineup. There were times that he simply couldn't keep up with the pace that Giroux and Jakub Voracek set -- they were moving at a top-line NHL pace, while Hartnell plodded along a full stride behind the play.

Come next year, if the Flyers are to rebound to becoming a playoff team, they will need Hartnell to at least play to his 2010-11 level, assuming that his 2011-12 season is beyond his realistic capacity. If not, well, Hartnell's contract could quickly become a salary cap albatross.

Signed prior to the lockout, Hartnell's six-year contract extension kicks in for the 2013-14 season. He will get a slight bump from his current deal in terms of average annual value. The new deal carries a $4.75 million cap hit compared his current $4.25 million. If Hartnell does NOT rebound to form on the ice, the bigger problem is the length of the contract.

Let's put it this way: If the Flyers use both of their compliance buyouts this season and Hartnell has another down year next season, the hindsight-is-20/20 armchair GM crowd will be grumbling that the Flyers should have bought out Hartnell when they had the chance.

My belief is that Hartnell will have a much better season next year than he did in what has been a hellish season for many on the club. He's never going become a disciplined player but I think it is realistic to expect that he will get back to performing at a level where the pros significantly outweigh the cons in his game.


In yesterday's blog, I talked about the Flyers' reserve-list outlook for next season. I deliberately omitted the case of Eric Wellwood in order to discuss it in depth today.

Wellwood's gruesome accident on the ice could not possibly have come at a worse time for him. After dressing in every game of the playoffs for the Flyers last year, he dropped on the depth chart this year over the course of a disappointing season for the Phantoms.

During the NHL lockout, he was a healthy scratch for about two weeks because Adirondack head coach Terry Murray wanted to see him become more assertive in using his speed and more aggressive in pursuing the puck. After the lockout ended, Wellwood dressed in four NHL games with the Flyers early in the season but did not receive another recall after being returned to the AHL.

Wellwood faces up to a full year of recovery from his recent injuries, which included not only a severed right Achilles tendon, but a second severed tendon and an artery that was about 70 percent severed. He will miss most or all of next season.

The checking forward is a restricted free agent this summer. Prior to the injury, despite his down year, it was a lock that the Flyers would tender him a qualifying offer and then re-sign him. The cap hit on his soon-to-expire entry level contract is $580,000.

Now, the Flyers have a decision to make. They already know that if the player is re-signed:

a) Wellwood will have to be carried on the NHL roster next year because, as an injured player, he cannot be placed on waivers and be assigned to the AHL if he clears, and

b) Wellwood's NHL salary would correspondingly be dead space on the salary cap unless the team places him on LTIR if it is bumping up against the $64.3 million cap ceiling next year. That situation seems likely unless the team uses both of its compliance buyouts this offseason.

As heartless as it may seem, the Flyers' best move may be to NOT tender Wellwood a qualifying offer and let him become an unrestricted free agent. Unfortunately for Wellwood, that could mean sitting out there unsigned for a full year or accepting a minor league contract when he is close to being cleared to play. Teams in the NHL, including Philly, will want to see how he recovers from his serious injuries and how long it takes him to regain his speed.

Wellwood deserves a chance to get his career back on track and take another crack at an NHL job. He would have gotten that chance in training camp and the preseason if not for the serious injuries he recently sustained. Now he faces a long recovery and an uncertain contractual future.

I feel horribly for him. Off the ice, Wellwood is a bright, mature and likeable young man. On the ice, he's diligent defensively and his speed has been a major weapon (unfortunately, he lacks the soft hands to go with it) when he uses it properly. I'll be rooting for Wellwood to make a strong comeback in the latter part of next season and to make it back to the NHL, whether it's in Philly or elsewhere.

Sadly, though, if it were my decision to make this offseason, I would not give Wellwood a qualifying offer so as to not to compelled by the rules to carry his NHL salary on the cap as he rehabs. In terms of system depth, not carrying Wellwood on the roster would also free up another slot on the organization's reserve list.


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