Monday, February 11, 2013

Leighton caught in nasty Catch-22

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Michael Leighton is nothing more than a plaything to the Philadelphia Flyers front office. And though it's high time he woke up and demanded something better, it may not be possible.

On Sunday, after all of one disastrous start -- which came two weeks ago in a 5-1 road loss to the high-octane Tampa Bay Lightning -- the club placed him on injured reserve with an upper-body injury of unknown origin that will conveniently keep him out of action for 7-to-10 days.

Read between the lines, and you see a pattern of tweaking the system to reward a good soldier. Only it's Brian Boucher, not Leighton himself, who will benefit.

What a way to thank the guy who pretty much rescued an entire magical playoffs.

Almost three years ago, when Boucher's postseason ended the second Ryan Parent dropped his entire weight on the starter's leg in the crease at Boston in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Leighton stepped in cold and took the Flyers within two games of winning the franchise's third Stanley Cup.

He wasn't left to wait very long until Paul Holmgren, unwilling to find another suitable backup at an inflated price, inked him to a $3.1 million deal over two years on the eve of free agency.

Leighton's reward? Being shipped up to Glens Falls to play for the Adirondack Phantoms while Boucher spelled rookie sensation Sergei Bobrovsky. Though he played well in the AHL, going 14-12-3 with a 2.55 goals-against average and five shutouts, his lone NHL re-audition was a 7-4 win at Los Angeles on December 30, where stopping 32-of-36 shots apparently failed to impress Holmgren enough for him to get another crack at sticking with the big boys.

Even worse, Holmgren was forced to eat some more crow and call Leighton back to Philly when Peter Laviolette completely bungled the goaltending situation through a seven-game first-round series against Buffalo that April. History didn't repeat itself, and Leighton was 0-1 with a 3.43 GAA in two appearances as the Flyers were ultimately steamrolled by the Bruins in a sweep on their way to the 2011 title.

So, back to the minors it was for the Chicago-area native, and he finished 28-26-1 with a 2.58 GAA and two whitewashes as the primary man for the Phantoms last season. Debate continued on whether or not he was fit to return to the NHL, or be doomed to exist as a "quad-A talent," destined to be bounced back and forth.

Nonetheless, Leighton was brought back nine days after Holmgren jettisoned the now disappointing Bobrovsky, thanks to a $900,000 deal for one year. In a bizarre twist, Holmgren decided to keep stockpiling bodies, dealing to recover Boucher from the Carolina Hurricanes just days before the start of the 2013 schedule.

So now that Leighton has been removed from the equation for the majority of the duration of this upcoming six-game road trip that begins in Toronto later this evening, you've got the makings of another needless goaltending controversy.

Leighton being on a one-way deal would not deter the Flyers' front office, which seems to have ADD when it comes to short-term rewards for good performance, from giving him a one-way ticket up Interstate 87. Plus, there's no more re-entry waiver provision in the new CBA for players to be sent down. As could be reasonably expected, if Boucher performs well on this road swing when Bryzgalov needs a rest, why wouldn't he be kept in Philadelphia?

It's a devious, backward and unnecessary plan just to put Boucher where they wanted him. Why go through the trouble of signing Leighton for a second time, setting him up to fail by evaluating his worth in one game only and then being secretive about an injury that serves to promote his competition?

I believe Holmgren and others in the organization really don't care what happens to Leighton, while harboring some weird crush on Boucher. But I also believe that it's an implied dare in Leighton's direction to find more work in the NHL without the Flyers dangling that line of a potential comfy spot somewhere within their ranks.

Except next time, Leighton should take the bait. Should Boucher play well enough to be considered for backup to Bryzgalov, he should request waivers or a buy-out from Holmgren just to extricate himself from this carousel of ridiculousness -- just to mess with the club that essentially has him trapped after releasing the disappointing Niko Hovinen from his contract.

Remember how Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Justin Williams, Dennis Seidenberg and Rod Brind'Amour fared once the organization did what they felt they had to do to move on? While nowhere near a difference-maker, I have no doubt that Leighton will be a valuable insurance policy for a playoff hopeful and could be a minor-league presence for Stanley Cup contender -- but do the other 29 teams actually feel this way?

Who would take a chance on a 31-year-old journeyman that has played exactly two NHL-level games in the last three seasons and has never appeared in more than 34 games in any one season?

Leighton holds 105 games of professional service spread out over 10 seasons with four teams, has a losing record (35-41-4 with 10 ties), a save percentage barely within acceptable range (.901) and goals-against bordering on unreliable for this era (2.97).

He could land in Calgary, but with Miikka Kiprusoff taking all but a few starts, it would be a similar situation than the one here regarding a backup's playing time.  Columbus is deep enough into rebuilding, but three mediocre goaltenders, two of them ex-Flyers, would be foisting the same problem there as it is here. Tampa Bay had Dwayne Roloson for a deep playoff run two years ago, but are the Flyers going to bite the bullet and deal with a "conference rival" despite the Bolts' need for better goaltending that Mathieu Garon and Anders Lindback?

Forget about any lingering feelings over the worst goal to be given up at a crucial time in Flyers history, Leighton deserves better than this. The organization has been up front about accommodating athletes who need more playing time by sending them to another franchise, so why should this be any different?
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