If someone, at the beginning of the season, told you that Michael Leighton would make a glorious return to Philadelphia and be penciled in as the starter heading into the postseason, how would you react?
Would you laugh like the rest of the NHL and possibly joke about the Flyers’ instability at the goaltending position since Ron Hextall?
Would you cry at the fact that the Flyers playoff hopes rest on the shoulders of a man who had 17 career NHL wins coming into the 2009-10 season?
It’s not easy to know how you’d react in hindsight, but you certainly wouldn’t feel all that comfortable knowing that prior to this season Leighton had played in 69 NHL only coming away with 17 wins, a 0.882 career save percentage, and a 3.51 career goals-against average.
Even Leighton’s early season didn’t show any signs that he would miraculously come to life as a goaltender with the Flyers. He played 7 total games for the Hurricanes early this season, and the results were less than spectacular. He was only credited with 1 win and 4 losses in the 7 games but came away with 0.848 sv% and a 4.29 GAA.
It couldn’t just be that he plays well in Philly either. He played 4 games for the Orange and Black back in 2006-07 resulting in 2 wins, 2 losses, a 0.882 sv%, and a 3.69 GAA.
You can’t even claim that he was brilliant immediately when Boucher went down just before Christmas. Leighton has developed slowly into form between the pipes. Since his first ice time for the Flyers this season, he has gradually improved his positioning, his rebound control, his glove hand, and his composure in net.
To say that his rebound control and positioning are great would be a complete lie, but they are improved.
Does this have something to do with Holmgren’s offseason decision to finally give goaltending coach Reggie Lemelin the axe? It seems as though Jeff Reese has been working miracles. Leighton has gone from league laughing stock to top five in both save percentage and goals-against average by the Olympic Break. That’s a huge difference in just two months for the waiver wire pick up.
Right now with a 0.924 sv% and 2.29 GAA, he may not be in the top 5 of both categories anymore, but he is certainly giving the Flyers a chance to win games. Last night was no exception as he held the Leafs to just 1 goal on 28 shots against resulting in a 3-1 win for the Flyers. He is now just 4 wins away from tying his total career wins before Christmas last December.
You have to realize by now that Head Coach Laviolette’s system and an elite defense are another big chunk of what has created this monster. Perhaps the best defense in the NHL is walling at the point, funneling attackers to the walls for bad shots, lifting sticks in the slot, clearing bodies from the crease, getting pucks deep into the offensive zone, and knocking those “juicy” rebounds off to the corers out of dangerous areas in front of Leighton.
Leighton owes steak dinners to each of Pronger, Timonen, Carle, Coburn, Parent, Krajicek, Bartulis, and Syvret at the end of this season. There’s no question about that.
Still, the Flyers under Laviolette believe in a team game. Defense is played as a team and offense is played as a team. Everyone knows their role, and everyone carries it out. Perhaps, Leighton owes some steak to forwards like Laperriere and Betts dropping in front of zooming pucks, or Richards and Gagne for back-checking to break up odd-man rushes, or maybe even Briere for pressing on the fore-check. Every little bit helps. Leighton is a reflection of the team he has in front of him, and the team in front of him is among the NHL elite regardless of their current record.
Goaltending in the NHL is about two things: the strength of the team in front of you, and how comfortable they are with how you play in net. Organizations don’t necessary look for the best goaltender when planning a team but, instead, look for the netminder the team feels the most comfortable with. Maybe that’s why the Flyers haven’t had a steady goaltender since Hextall?
So, how do you feel about Leighton? Is this a Cinderella or a ticking time bomb?