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Is Ilya Bryzgalov banged up because the Coyotes give him too many starts?

Dec 18, 2010, 7:30 PM EDT

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On some level, I’m starting to wonder if a team’s backup goalie ranks as the most underrated asset (or weakness) in the NHL.

Simply put, having a decent rotation brings plenty of benefits. Sure, it’s possible that you might tweak the ego of your franchise guy (or your mediocre goalie in franchise goalie’s pads), but we’re talking about the highest pressure position in hockey. Thick skin is practically a job requirement.

Ultimately, having a good backup pushes your top guy to avoid prolonged spans of mediocrity and also allows teams to reduce the odds that a No.1 goalie will suffer from wear-and-tear injuries, particularly of the groin/leg/”lower body” variety.

Apologies to Jason LaBarbera, but the Phoenix Coyotes seem like they’re paying a little bit for their uneven distribution of labor in net. Counting LaBarbera’s likely start tonight, Ilya Bryzgalov started 26 out of Phoenix’s first 31 games in 2010-11.

After beginning the season with a reasonable three starts for Breezy/ one start for the Barber rotation, the Coyotes leaned heavily on their quirky Russian goalie since mid-November. Just look at the team’s pattern (beginning on November 12):

Eight starts for Bryzgalov (6-2-0); one start for LaBarbera (1-0); five starts for Bryzgalov (2-2-1). For non-math majors like myself, he played in 13 out of Phoenix’s 14 games in that span, including two sets of back-to-back games.

The Coyotes originally said that he was scratched from Thursday’s game against the New York Rangers because of flu symptoms, but Jim Gintonio reports that Bryzgalov is also dealing with “an upper body injury” sustained during Wednesday’s game against the New Jersey Devils.

Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who was scratched  Thursday night against the  Rangers  because of the flu, also has an upper body injury and returned to Phoenix for treatment before Saturday’s game against the Islanders.

The injury, which Bryzgalov sustained  Wednesday in New Jersey,  is not believed to be serious.

Gintonio reports that the team expects Bryzgalov to practice with the team on the Tuesday.

Now, it’s quite possible that Bryzgalov is banged up just by chance. Yet when you look at injuries sustained by workhorse goalies such as Martin Brodeur, Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson so far this season, I cannot help but wonder if their teams should be a bit more scrupulous regarding their workloads. It reminds me of the wisdom of a MLB manager limiting an ace’s pitches or an NFL coach being wary of giving a running back receiving too many carries; if they care about the player’s health, they’ll be much more likely to keep them fresh in the long run.

Of course, when you play in the muddled, tiny-margin-of-error West, every LaBarbera start is a big gamble. Then again, sometimes short term pains (a so-so record when “The Barber” starts) trump long-term losses (losing Bryzgalov for extended periods of time).

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