Feb 1, 2010, 10:53 AM EDT
Michael Leighton was the man in the Flyers' net for the historic three-game comeback against Boston, a three-shutout performance against the Canadiens, and yes, the shortcomings of the Stanley Cup Finals. Quite a roller coaster ride over just a few months last season; Leighton was everything from hero to goat. But after the dust settled, he was mostly seen as a guy somewhere in between. However, it's the first day of December, and we haven't seen him suit up since game 6.
After surgery to repair a disc in his back and nearly 2 months of rehab, the guy Paul Holmgren signed to be the Flyers' starting goaltender is set to begin an AHL conditioning stint and rejoin the team after six days. His return to the roster is filled with questions, from a crowded crease and salary shedding needs to how fans will respond to him.
The major reason his return is complicated is actually a positive one—the Flyers have stormed their way to first place in the division, tied for second in the conference. Quite frankly, Leighton hasn't been missed.
Too Many MCs
From the first game of the season, a win by rookie Sergei Bobrovsky on opening night in the Penguins' new building, goaltending has been less of a question than it has in years. Had Bobrobsky faltered for more than a game throughout the season's first quarter, or Brian Boucher been terribly rusty when called upon for his turns, then maybe there would be more of a clamoring for the guy who finally found an NHL home last season after bouncing around for his entire career, never even buying a home.
A hero's welcome is not a part of Leighton's upcoming week. A rookie has, for the foreseeable future, taken his job and instilled confidence in his coach, his team, and certainly the fanbase, who have voted him all the way to second place in the All-Star balloting despite his name not actually being on the ballot. Boucher has let up a few frustrating goals, but he's made far more spectacular saves, even beating first-place teams in back-to-back games. At least so far, Bob and Boosh have had the netminding duties on lockdown. While Leighton would likely be more in the event of an injury to Bobrovsky, his price tag brings a greater hit than Boucher's.
So where does Leighton fit into that scenario? Hard to say.
I certainly don't see him immediately supplanting Bobrovsky, who has looked like exactly what the Flyers said they wanted last season—a true #1 for years to come, only having seemingly stepped into that role immediately. There still could be a rookie wall in his future, and as we learned last year, injuries can strike at a startling rate. But it's not customary to carry three goalies as an insurance policy, and with the way Peter Laviolette uses backups, it's very unlikely all three will be on the roster for long, if at all.
Not Enough Cap Space
There's also the matter of clearing salary cap space to accommodate Leighton's $1.55 million wage. Someone on the books will have to go, whether it's one of the goalies or not. BroadStreetHockey did a nice roundup of why placing another player, like Matt Walker or Ian Laperriere on Long-Term Injury Reserve (LTIR, where Leighton's contract currently sits), is not as simple or ideal as it may sound.
Despite a small skid mark on their way into a much-needed three-day rest, the Flyers are also not a team that looks like it needs a trade. Wins have a way of quieting the angry mob, and the players that the pitchfork-wielders have wished away before are currently producing the way their salaries would indicate this season. Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere were the two names most often heard in previous seasons, and after their line (along with Ville Leino) led the Flyers on a rampage through the playoffs, they've kept that momentum going with 23 goals between them through 25 games and a nearly even points share (Briere: 18; Hartnell: 17; Leino: 19). Even if those guys weren't producing, they couldn't likely be moved. The point is, there's little if any room for upgrade on the forward and defense lines right now.
The other forward lines have seen some movement as Lavvy sees fit, and that's a luxury a coach won't want to give up. Each of his lines can score and hit, and they exchange and assimilate new components with ease. As it stands, with Dan Carcillo nearing his return from injury, the Flyers have one more NHL forward than they can accommodate.
There's also the question of how fans will respond to Leighton's return, which won't be a factor in guiding the organization's next move, but it's important to us nonetheless.
Leighton came to the team at a time of dire need in goal, and based on a lackluster career to date, his arrival was met with more of an eye roll than a resounding applause. He quickly changed that impression though, with a stabilizing effect on a team filled with tumult. Though his regular season numbers aren't gaudy, he played very well for a team in the midst of an identity crisis that nearly saw the roster on its way to being torn apart in the off-season. After a high-ankle sprain sidelined him in March for the remainder of the season and the start of the playoffs, he returned to the active roster on exactly the night the Flyers would need him. Boucher's knees were blown when Ryan Parent fell on him, and Leighton took over once again.
He won three straight games against tonight's opponent, the Boston Bruins, and the Flyers came back from a 3-0 series deficit and a 3-0 hole in game 7. If not another game were played, it would have still been an amazing run for the team and its fans. But then Leighton was in net for the Eastern Conference Finals, pitching three shutouts in the series and losing only once, in Montreal. While the team's amazing defense was credited as the strength most responsible for all of the above, Leights still did everything needed of him, including making some amazing saves and, perhaps most importantly, just not making any major mistakes that might deflate the team in front of him.
A contract extension seemed more than logical—it was deserved, and the comments on the game threads mostly praised Leighton. But that train started its course off the tracks during a very average performance in the Stanley Cup Finals, and derailed completely when the Blackhawks circled the Flyers' home ice with the Cup raised after Leighton failed to make what should have been an easy save.
He became something of a scapegoat, or at the very least, he was seen by some fans as the piece most in need of replacement for the Flyers to move that one huge step forward this season. His efforts in the regular season and playoff rounds preceding the Finals were appreciated, but for a franchise that hasn't seen a Cup since the 70s, fans wanted improvement.
Improvement did come in the off-season, but not in the form of a new starting goalie (or so we thought). The defense was further bolstered to take minutes off the plate of Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, whose wear was visible when the Finals rolled around. Homer tried to land an upgrade in net, but the market offered little in that department, so he stayed with the known quantity, which seemed a solid, relatively inexpensive decision.
However, it wasn't known at the time—at least to us—was that Leighton was damaged goods. A back injury from the playoffs hadn't fully healed, and we don't know exactly the degree to which the Flyers knew that before and during the signing process. When Leighton updated the team on the injury's severity, it was too late to change course. His salary was on the books, and no other starting-caliber goalies could be brought in. Fortunately, one of the future hopefuls was far more ready than we knew at the time. We don't know what the Flyers knew or didn't know about Leighton's injury at the time his contract was signed, but the mumbled speculation that his side may have initially masked it further tainted some fans' disposition.
But Leighton has already overcome the doubters once. To do it again, he'll first need a spot on the roster, and also to prove healthy. For all we know, this disc thing could flare up again during the conditioning stint. If not, Homer has a juggling act on his hands, because there isn't any room for a third goalie, or another salary, and so far, this has looked like Bob's team.
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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