by Jack Eikenbary | AHL On The Beat Archive
There are two kinds of free-agent veteran athletes: those who wait for the right opportunity to extend their career and those who wait for any opportunity in hopes of making their "comeback" or a last chance at relevance. Ilya Bryzgalov is the former.
Bryzgalov and his son were driving back home to New Jersey from a hockey tournament in Philadelphia when he received a call from his agent. The 34-year-old Russian didn’t just get a chance to step back into a NHL crease, he was offered a golden ticket.
"He told me Anaheim offered me a tryout contract and if I wanted to take it. I said ‘That’s great. Let’s try because it’s a great opportunity,’" he said. "California is one of the best places on Earth."
Turns out Orange County was one of only a few destinations that interested Bryzgalov enough to end his short retirement experience. If it wasn’t for a pile of injuries to Anaheim’s top three goaltenders, the netminder may still be shuttling his son to and from hockey rinks.
"I considered only a few teams to play for. It’s a great place to play. There are lots of things to connect me to California," he said. "My son was born there, building my first house there… It was a great six and a half years I spent out there."
Frederik Andersen injured his leg, backup John Gibson pulled a groin shortly after, and Jason LaBarbera hurt his hand to close out a November that seemed to only break bad news for the Ducks. Yet this perfect storm of sorts resulted in Anaheim signing perhaps the best free-agent netminder on the market, and completing what is now one of the deeper goaltending corps in the NHL.
The Togliatti, Russia local began his career as a Duck when Anaheim selected him with the 44th overall pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. Following 199 games in the American Hockey League for Anaheim’s primary affiliate Cincinnati and two NHL appearances from 2001-05, the Ducks relocated Bryzgalov to the West Coast permanently.
He showed an abundance of both promise and potential in the 2005-06 campaign, finishing his first full season of NHL action 13-12-1 along with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.
In 2006-07, Bryzgalov backed up Jean-Sebastien Giguere, playing 27 regular-season games and five in the playoffs as the Ducks went the distance for their first Stanley Cup victory in franchise history. He hoisted the trophy with the likes of Francois Beauchemin, Ryan Getzlaf, Scott Niedermayer, Todd Marchant, and Corey Perry, players who all remain a part of the Ducks’ organization nearly eight years later.
"When you know some people out there it’s much easier. I know the people who work in the organization," Bryzgalov said. "It’s a great organization and a great place to play hockey."
Before Bryzgalov could play in Anaheim full-time, management eased him back into competition with two games for Norfolk against the Eastern Conference-leading Springfield. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder made several impressive saves throughout the weekend on the way to a 1-1 record. He turned aside 32 of 34 shots on Friday and 22 of 25 on Saturday, with a few game-savers scattered across the two contests.
Bryzgalov picked up the Third Star of the night in Friday’s game and helped the Admirals to a comfortable win Saturday despite allowing a goal with eight seconds left in regulation to cut a late two-goal lead in half.
He concluded the conditioning stint and met the Ducks in Toronto on Monday ahead of Anaheim’s matchup with the Maple Leafs this past Tuesday. No matter the role, he is ready to serve in any capacity required of him in hopes to relive what is likely the proudest moment of the Anaheim Ducks’ existence and Bryzgalov’s career.
"My goal right now is help Anaheim be successful," he said. "I’ll give it everything I got and put everything on the table to help them win the Cup."
His timing couldn’t be any better. Bryzgalov joins the Ducks’ adventure to the Stanley Cup Playoffs as Anaheim sits atop the entire NHL in points with 47 through 33 games.
"Whatever they ask me to do," he said. "I’ll prepare myself, play the games, and help the team win as many games as possible."
Only time will tell just how much the 14-year pro has left in the tank. Lucky for hockey fans, there’s only one way to find out.