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|27 íîÿáðÿ 2007
Morgan: Coyotes find a bargain in Bryzgalov // Sun Tribune
You try not to make uneducated comparisons when you meet Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. You try to shake the memories of the last Russian to man the local pipes — the last guy who qualified as a long-term plan.
You remember Nikolai Khabibulin chain-smoking out the back door at the Alltel Ice Den like a convict on recess.
But you don’t see any Marlboros rolled inside Bryzgalov’s T-shirt sleeve.
Maybe all Russian goalies aren’t one step removed from the Mob.
Then Bryzgalov exhales some analogy about life experience and all you can think of is Khabibulin’s nickname: The Bulin Wall.
“It’s like building a house, brick after brick,” Bryzgalov says of his long wait for this opportunity. “You’re always learning something — every game, every practice — whether it’s bad or good.”
Not much had been good for Bryzgalov before he landed in the Coyotes’ mail box on Nov. 17, like another low-interest credit card offer for bargain-shopping general manager Don Maloney.
Sure, the Coyotes were singing his praises the moment he arrived, but you’d heard that jingle before.
You had a simple retort: David LeNeveu.
Then Bryzgalov made 28 saves just hours after being claimed off waivers from Anaheim and the Coyotes shut out the Kings, 1-0, in Los Angeles.
Four straight wins later, you’re wondering if this franchise has finally discovered the NHL’s small-market manifesto.
“He’s a big man who moves very well, he’s very conscious of his rebounds, and he has a great personality for playing because he doesn’t get flustered by bad goals or what’s going on around him,” Coyotes goalie coach and Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr said.
“I had a feeling he’d be able to step right in and play.”
When the Ducks drafted Bryzgalov in 2002, they thought he would be the cornerstone of the franchise. But the emergence of Jean-Sebastien Giguere in the 2002-03 playoffs forced Bryzgalov to spend parts of four seasons in the American Hockey League.
When he got a chance in the 2005-2006 NHL playoffs, he posted three shutouts and 1.46 goals-against average to lead Anaheim to the Western Conference finals. But Giguere bounced back to lead the Ducks to their first Stanley Cup last season.
“Giguere is one of the top five goalies in the NHL,” Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky said.
”When you have a guy like that, he needs to play 55 to 60 games and that didn’t leave much of a chance for anyone else.”
Makes sense. But how does a guy with this much upside end up on waivers?
“The single, biggest obstacle was that he’s (an) unrestricted (free agent) at the end of the year,” Ducks general manager Brian Burke told the Canadian Press. “I wasn’t offered anything of value for him. But I promised him, ‘If I can’t get something of value for you, we’ll put you on waivers.’”
Turns out there is no market for goalies in the NHL.
“Every team has two guys signed to one-way deals,” Maloney said.
Which created Bryzgalov’s big break.
“I waited all day long and at 9:15 a.m. the next day Brian Burke called me and said ‘the Phoenix Coyotes are your new team,’” Bryzgalov said. “I was very grateful.”
He’s not the only one.
Maloney talked to Burke about acquiring Bryzgalov at the NHL draft in June.
“The price he was asking just didn’t make sense for me,” said Maloney, who would have had to part with young talent — in short supply in the house that Mike Barnett built.
When the Ducks finally put Bryzgalov on waivers Nov. 16, Gretzky reacted like a kid on the eve of a Disneyland vacation.
“I didn’t sleep all night,” said Gretzky, whose team had just dropped three straight blowouts to San Jose. “Had we won one or two of those we might not have got him because we would have been higher in the standings.”
Instead, Bryzgalov will now earn a prorated amount of his $1.36 million salary this season with Phoenix.
“It’s the perfect situation for us,” Maloney said.
Maloney knows four wins don’t make a savior. Brian Boucher posted five straight shutouts four seasons ago with Phoenix and that will likely be the highlight of his career.
Bryzgalov will get a tougher test when the Coyotes open a four-game road trip today in Minnesota — a trip that, ironically stops Friday in Chicago to face the Blackhawks and Khabibulin.
But there is little risk involved.
If Bryzgalov doesn’t pan out, the Coyotes are out a measly $1 million.
If he does, Maloney will already have secured his place as the best general manager in Coyotes history.
Hey. The competition isn’t stiff.