Sunday, March 3, 2013

Leighton returns 3/3

It would be perfectly reasonable to expect Michael Leighton to be somewhat disappointed about his latest trip to the American Hockey League, which comes mere months after he signed a one-way contract to be Ilya Bryzgalov’s back-up goaltender with the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers.

Those same Flyers placed him on waivers Thursday, and shipped him to Glens Falls – as they did in both of the past two seasons – while another goaltending tandem held the fort in Philadelphia. This time, it is Bryzgalov and Brian Boucher, a journeyman who was acquired as an insurance policy, but then summoned to the NHL last month after Leighton suffered an upper-body injury.

But Leighton’s visit to Glens Falls was as much his idea as it was Philadelphia’s management’s.

The 31-year-old Leighton had started just one game since April 2012, thanks to the four-month lockout, Philadelphia’s use of Bryzgalov as a workhorse and the injury he suffered in practice. As he neared full health, he and Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren discussed Leighton’s future.

The goaltender needed reps, and not the kind he could get during a practice. The best way for a goalie to prepare for a game is to play one, to work himself back into a rhythm of facing shooters.

“He told me I definitely needed to play, and I agreed,” Leighton said. “I haven’t played for a while. I played one game against Tampa Bay and then I sat for two or three weeks and then I got hurt and have been out for two or three weeks. It’s something that I thought was the right thing to do.”

That begs the question, why not just assign Leighton to the Phantoms on a conditioning stint? Why place him on waivers, and run the risk that one of the other 29 NHL teams put in a claim?

That was discussed, Leighton said, but a conditioning assignment would have kept him on the Flyers’ 23-man roster. His salary also would have counted against the cap while in the AHL. By placing Leighton on waivers first, the Flyers do not have to worry about either of those issues.

“(Holmgren) was going to do a conditioning stint, but we had too many players on the roster and cap issues,” Leighton said. “He just said ‘We’re going to have to put you on waivers. Go down and play some games, and hopefully be back up.’ ”

Leighton made his AHL season debut Sunday as the Phantoms lost to Albany 3-2. He made 25 saves and played well, though the competitor in him was upset with two of the goals he allowed.

“The first goal, I was cheating over,” Leighton said. “There was a guy that was wide open, so I kind of turned my body a little bit. He shot it at me. Not happy about that one. The last one, the guy goes to take a one-timer and pretty much fans on it. That’s just one of those stupid things that happens in a game where if he shoots it, it probably hits Lilja or I make a save. Bad play.”

Because Leighton cleared waivers, there is no cap on how long his AHL stint might last. He is a future candidate for enshrinement in this league’s Hall of Fame. His 36 shutouts are a modern record and his 170 wins are the most among active players. The goalie has little left to prove in this league.

But unlike previous seasons, when the Flyers had Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky ahead of him on the depth chart, there is a legitimate chance that he might see some more NHL time this year.

“He hasn’t had a lot of work since he was injured … and really not a lot of quality practice time,” Phantoms coach Terry Murray said. “He’s had five, six shooters even in Philadelphia. We have to get more drills in place, obviously, for him now to start to get comfortable in game situations.”

That level of comfort will come in time. For now, Leighton is just happy to be healthy.

“It was good just to play a game,” Leighton said. “I’ve done a lot of practice and a lot of rehab in the last little while. It felt good to get back playing again.”


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home