Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Hater's Guide to Michael Leighton

Today, the Phanatic features a piece straight from the desk of 4 Who 4 What Sports. This missive, an emotional appeal against a former Flyers goaltender, architect of one of the most heart-breaking moments in Orange and Black history.

Hard to believe, since we're known for our forgiving natures in this town, but there's a professional hockey player that I loathe with every fiber of my being. 

He is one of the most over-hyped "talents" to ever skate on National Hockey League ice and I place him squarely at fault for the biggest gut-punch moment in my lifetime as a Flyers fan. 

You might say Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin or Zdeno Chara. Those with long memories might even think it's Patrick Kane. You're only half right. Mr. Kane is forever linked to this object of my obsession -- Michael Leighton is the thorn in my hockey fandom’s side.

Honestly, I don’t have the stats to prove that this man is the most incompetent goaltender I’ve ever witnessed, but why should that stop me? In 105 total NHL games for the Blackhawks, Preds, Flyers, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets, Leighton posted a 35-41-14 record with a goals-against average of 2.97 and a save percentage of .901. Those are typical run-of-the-mill NHL numbers. But you'd have to agree, to have seen this man stumble across the crease in a vain attempt at "goaltending" was just atrocious. 

For a guy who kicked around the league for the better part of a decade, Leighton fails the eye test miserably. Every time a shot went on net I held my breath because I didn’t know if Leighton was going to misread it or possibly set up the opposing team with a fat, juicy rebound. After going back to watch the entirety of the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, I say if Brian Boucher had played over Leighton then the Flyers would have won the series. 

The supposed playoff savior let up multiple goals against that were from above the faceoff circles, not to mention another good chunk of goals were scrums in front of the net where Leighton could neither track the puck nor control rebounds. 

Case in point, here's a clip of Marion Hossa and Ben Eager -- yes that Ben Eager -- scoring back-to-back during Chicago's 2-1 victory in Game 2:

During the replay of Hossa’s goal you can see Leighton hardly react and watch the puck lay in front of his left leg pad as if he was praying that it would somehow absorb into him and get a stoppage. Nope, didn’t happen. One of the premier snipers in the NHL buries that, and he hasn't had too many that were easier during his career. Leighton then made hands-of-stone Eager look as good as Gretzky on a routine wrist shot from above the right faceoff circle. Just an “oh let me get this on net and pray it gets in” shot that Leighton failed to snag and resulted in a goon receiving the honor of a Stanley Cup game-winning score.

Even putting that aside, I saw that Leighton's biggest problem was crease awareness. During the first period of the track meet that was Game 5, Leighton had lost where he was in the crease and let in three goals on Chicago’s first thirteen shots. All of them could have been stopped if he was square to the shooter but they all dribbled or deflected in because Leighton was not spatially aware. He relied too much on his large frame to try and block shots instead of relying on positioning to stop pucks. 

I don't need to remind you how it cost us dearly
throughout Game 6.

The image of Kane receiving a pass from the point and taking a shot from the left half boards through what can best be described as Leighton’s "unorthodox stance" is seared into my head and the biggest reason I despise him with such vitriol. 

How do you leave your legs that open to let a bad angle shot go in? How do you do that during the Stanley Cup Finals with your team’s life on the line?

We all know how this story ends, in typical fairy-tale fashion. Leighton lies to Paul Holmgren about a back injury he sustained to sign a two-year contract whose time is spent mostly not in Philadelphia. After wallowing in the AHL, being part of Peter Laviolette's "goaltending carousel" and then being sent back permanently to Glens Falls, we sign the Russian who will not be named. At least we got something good out of his banishment to Columbus at last year's trade deadline in Steve Mason.

I should let this hatred go but I can’t. I was in Hell when Leighton became a fan favorite, because it was obvious from my viewpoint that he wasn’t the reason the Flyers were winning. They won in spite of him. They played good team defense and clogged the middle during that playoff run to make sure rebounds didn’t get back to Leighton. Laviolette knew he had an amateur goalie and managed to work around it as best he could. 

Why he couldn’t do that with Ilya Bryzgalov is a story for a different rant, but because the A-holia from Petrolia cost us a shot at the Stanley Cup is why I hate Michael Leighton.

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