Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Flyers Sign Michael Leighton to Two Year Pact

By: Tim Brennan

So after a prolonged search for a big named goaltender, the Flyers decided to stick with what they had this season by giving Michael Leighton a two year, $3.1 million deal today.

The Flyers had been trying to get a contract finalized with Evgeni Nabokov, who came to Philadelphia in a trade for his rights after San Jose cut off ties with the Russian netminder. Those talks hadn't gone well and both sides were at an impasse so the Flyers turned to the one guy responsible for the team making the playoffs to begin with. Leighton backstopped the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals and was in talks with general manager Paul Holmgren but the Flyers philosophy was to acquire an established number one goalie and they failed.

It beats me why Holmgren even hesitated to retain Leighton after everything that he had done to get this team from being mediocre to a Stanley Cup finalist. Leighton landed in Philadelphia mid season when Holmgren claimed him from the Carolina Hurricanes off of re-entry waivers. This move jump started a dormant Flyers team at that point, as Leighton posted a 16-5-2 record along with a goals against average of 2.48. Leighton followed those stats in the regular season with incredible numbers in the latter stages of the post season, going 8-3 with a 2.46 GAA (1st in NHL), .916 save percentage (2nd in NHL) and 3 shutouts (1st in NHL). His play was top notch, especially in the Eastern Conference Finals when he single-handedly defeated Montreal by only allowing 7 goals in 5 games, including 3 shutouts.

Leighton took a hit during the Stanley Cup Finals however because he seemed nervous in net and let in some soft goals. But when you think about it, Leighton had never played in the NHL playoffs prior to this year and it was the first time that he was considered the number one goaltender for an NHL team. That and the fact that the defense in front of him wasn't that stellar ultimately led to issues in the crease but this move is one of the few smart ones that Holmgren has made while controlling the team.

Leighton is 29 years old, an age that is considered to be a goaltender's prime, and he is only going to get better with more playing time. The Flyers need to be the opposite of the Carolina Hurricanes and give this man a chance to claim the top spot in net because Carolina didn't have any faith in him becoming an NHL goaltender and never gave him much of a chance by sticking him in the minors year after year. More than likely the Flyers brass will pursue another goaltender to push Leighton and try to settle the "crease problem". Those rumored to go head to head against Leighton in training camp are ex-Blue Chris Mason and former Flyer Antero Niittymaki, who spent this season backing up Mike Smith in Tampa before winning the starting job in the later stages.

Leighton oozes with potential and has shown this year that he can be #1 material but it will be up to management and head coach Peter Laviolette to decide who will be the starter once the season starts. What makes him such a solid goaltender is his work ethic is one of the best in the league, along with being fundamentally sound, possessing good size and a strong athletic ability. The only downfall are shots low, as he was exposed too many times in the post season five hole or along the ice especially during the Finals.

As Leighton put it, "I want a chance to start. Whether they go out and get another goalie, that doesn't change my mindset. I'm just going to go out and play my best and try to earn that spot." If that doesn't illustrate a player determined to prove everyone what he's worth than I don't know what can.

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