On Wednesday afternoon, of this week, Michael Leighton, last season’s waiver-wire hero, cleared re-entry waivers to rejoin the Philadelphia Flyers. After recovering from back surgery, he’s been playing for the Flyers AHL affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms. Bringing him back up to the big club begs some questions about the team’s goaltending future.
When the Flyers acquired Leighton, last season, they sat second to last in the Eastern Conference. The playoff picture was looking bleak. But due to injuries, the journeyman netminder was placed in the crease, and the wins began to stack up. Flyers’ coach, Peter Laviolette, rode his new goaltender until the final game of the Stanley Cup championship.
In the off season, Leighton received a new contract from the Flyers that would see him making $1.55 million in each of the next two seasons, and it all but guaranteed him the keys to the number one job. However, major back surgery stifled those plans, and many believed his days with the big club were over.
Leighton has been regaining his conditioning in the minors, and looking very good. He’s posted a 2.22 goals against average, .926 save percentage, and five shutouts in 30 games.
This season, the Flyers have been riding the tandem of Russian rookie, Sergei Bobrovsky, and veteran, Brian Boucher, all season. The two have put up strong performances throughout, but neither has been a show-stopping goaltender on a consistent basis. And their lack of a shutout this season is a glaring mark against them. Still, they were winning games, even garnering some consideration for Bobrovsky as the rookie of the year.
Things have hit a skid of late, and the Flyers have now lost four straight games, and only won six in their last 19. That’s bad enough to drop them from their lofty perch atop the Eastern Conference to battling for the Atlantic Division title. The Penguins now only trail them by one point in the standings.
Enter Mr. Leighton.
The Phantoms’ season isn’t over, with five games remaining, but Flyers’ GM, Paul Holmgren, wanted Leighton to see some NHL level shooters before the regular season ended. Is this a statement to the other two?
“They both know this is strictly a depth thing for us in the playoffs,” Holmgren said. “It’s not an issue with those guys. They both knew it was coming.”
Bobrovsky has started the majority of the games down the stretch. The organization has shown a great amount of trust in the inexperienced netminder, and he’s played well. But he hasn’t stolen a game for the team, and only shows flashes of brilliance throughout games, rather than putting together star caliber performances.
The Russian’s lack of experience could be his biggest enemy. Prior to this season the most games he’d played were 35. He’ll finish the season with 53 start, and the rigors of the NHL playoffs could prove too much for him.
The team seems likely to allow him to prove himself though. He’ll start Friday’s game against the Sabres, who the Flyers will likely meet in the first round of the playoffs. Then the Islanders game on Saturday will possibly go to Leighton, to see how he stands up. After that, it gets a little more unclear.
Bobrovsky’s been given the chance to control his own destiny. There are rumors that he’ll be the starter in game one of the playoffs, but after that its anyone’s guess.
Game one will likely be a deciding game. Laviolette has shown in the past, he’ll ride a hot goalie as long as he can. If Bobrovsky can prove he’s capable of handling the race for the Stanley Cup, he’ll stay in the net until the end. But, if he stumbles, even a little, the team will turn to Leighton, who’s been there before.
The other question is who’ll be the backup. Boucher has shown all season he can sit for long periods of time and come off the bench like he’d been playing all along. Look for Boucher to be the backup no matter who gets the starts.
Bobrovsky is a temperamental goaltender. He’s shown glimpses of being a star. If he can win games and stay hot, he’ll remain the Flyers number one. But the moment he faulters, Leighton will get his chance.