Although I’ve taken to defending Michael Leighton, I was never fully on the Leighton bandwagon. While reading chrislanci’s excellent fanpost on Leighton I started thinking about other goaltenders blossomed late and I thought about Craig Anderson. After a little bit of digging, I found out that the connection between those two is deeper than I thought. And with a little more digging, I ended up fully jumping on the Michael Leighton bandwagon.
The connection between the two begins in May of 1981, when Anderson and Leighton were born within two days of each other (Leighton being the older one). In the historically awful 1999 draft, the Chicago Blackhawks took Anderson 77th overall out of out of the OHL. Eighty-eight picks later, the Blackhawks took Leighton out of the OHL.
For the next six years, the two would be inextricably linked. Anderson would describe it as the two of them pushing each other. But as you’ll see, the pattern followed one of neither goaltender being allowed to truly flourish, and some bad decisions by a then moribund organization. Below, I break it down year by year and make a decision as to who was the better prospect at each time.
Age 17 – Craig Anderson gets called up to the Guelph Storm of the OHL where he spends most of the season backing up the immortal Chris Madden. In 21 GP he had a 3.10 GAA and a .903 save percentage. Meanwhile, our friend Mr. Leighton spent the entire season in the OHL with the Windsor Spitfires, backing up the even more immortal Ron Vogel. Leights had a 4.84 GAA and .867 save percentage in 28 games. Both goalies saw limited time in the playoffs and sucked.
Decision: Anderson. At this point he looks like a prospect while Leighton looks like a project. That results in Anderson going in the 3rd round while Leighton goes in the 6th.
Age 18 – Both were in their second season in the OHL. For Leighton, that meant splitting time with Ryan Aschaber. In 42 GP he had a 3.12 GAA and .889 save percentage. Leights would start in the playoffs, and put up a good performance in 12 games, with a .915 save percentage. Craig Anderson, meanwhile, was now sharing time with Madden, and in 38 GP had a 3.59 GAA and .903 save percentage. He played extremely well in the playoffs, mostly in relief.
Decision: Anderson. Leighton seems to be growing, but still not to the point where he’s caught his fellow prospect.
Age 19 – In their third OHL seasons, both become undisputed starters and thrive. Leighton (playing with Jason Spezza) started 54 games and had a 2.73 GAA and .910 save percentage. Anderson (playing with Dustin Brown) started 59 games and had a 2.63 GAA and .918 save percentage. The difference comes in the post-season, where Leighton is adequate (3.12/.906 in 9 GP) and Anderson is awful (4.25/.869 in a sweep).
Decision: Tie. Their regular seasons were similar and with the playoffs included, it’s hard to tell them apart.
Age 20 – Both goalies start the season with the Norfolk Admirals, with Leighton receiving the majority of the playing time. As a backup, Anderson was mediocre in 28 games (2.95/.886). Leighton, meanwhile, was Leights out. In 52 games he had a 2.14 GAA and a .920 save percentage, ranking among the top goaltenders in the AHL. Leighton also threw six shutouts, essentially two playoff series worth for him. Both goaltenders were phenomenal in the playoffs (although Anderson only in limited relief) but were ousted in the first round.
Decision: Leighton. On the same team, Leighton was the starter and one of the top goaltenders in a league including Ilya Bryzgalov, Rick DiPietro, Andrew Raycroft, Chris Mason and numerous other future NHL players. If you’re wondering, this is what Hockey’s Future had to say about Leights at the time:
Cool and able to ignore the goals that have already been scored on him, Leighton showed brilliance and his future looks bright.
Age 21 – Leighton goes to camp with the Blackhawks, and despite playing brilliantly, is sent back down to the AHL to split time with Anderson. In the AHL, Anderson has the better season (1.94/.923 in 32 GP), finally realizing his prospect potential. Leights is not quite as good (2.50/.912) in 36 games. Both were dominant in the playoffs, particularly Leighton (1.75/.931). Both also received their first NHL playing time. Anderson was mediocre (4.00/.856) in 6 games, while Leighton earned a shutout in his first game and maintained respectable numbers (2.82/.913) in his first 8 games.
Decision: Leighton. Both are excellent, but not as strong as Leighton. However, this is where you begin seeing how both goaltenders would suffer from the bad luck of being in the same system, and particularly in the Blackhawks system. THN’s Future Watch would describe Leighton as being preferred to Anderson by most NHL scouts. However, they also note how Blackhawks GM Mike Smith is "reluctant to discuss [Leighton’s] future without mentioning Craig Anderson."
Age 22 – And now comes the make or break season for these two men’s careers, the 2003-04 NHL season. Leighton wins the back-up job to Jocelyn Thibault in training camp. However, the Blackhawks insist that Anderson and Leighton would "take turns." Although both would see some time in the AHL during the season (Anderson with a an excellent 2.11/.914 in 37 GP, Leighton with an insane 1.83/.926 in only 18 GP) they became needed very badly in the NHL when Jocelyn Thibault went down for the season with a hip injury.
Craig Anderson would play acceptably in 21 games (2.84/.905). Michael Leighton would put up similar numbers (2.99/.900) in 34 games. Unfortunately, that translated into a 6-18-8 record. This was a terrible Blackhawks team. Their best player was Tuomo Ruutu. The six defensemen with the most time on ice that season were Nathan Dempsey, Bryan Berard, Steve Poapst, Stephane Robidas, Deron Quint and Jason Strudwick. This is still the most playing time in the NHL Michael Leighton has ever received, and it would be what him and Anderson were judged off for years.
Decision: Anderson. It is clear that, in the minds of the Blackhawks, this was a win for Anderson. However, most other observers disagreed. Hockey’s Future had Leighton ranked as the Blackhawks top prospect that spring, and Anderson #3.
Age 23 – This was the 2004-05 season. Many of you might remember… there was no NHL hockey. Anderson and Leighton were the perfect age and developmental level to have their progress retarded by the lockout. It was back to the AHL for both, where neither had much left to do. Leighton put up a 2.02 GAA and .921 save percentage in 41 GP. Anderson would play in only 15 games, with a 1.83 GAA and .929 save percentage. However, Leighton did not play at all down the stretch or in the playoffs, and Anderson would play in the post-season, putting in a brilliant performance against the unstoppable juggernaut that was the Calder Cup Champion Philadelphia Phantoms.
Decision: Anderson. For whatever reason, Chicago made their decision here. The Sports Forecaster would write in the off-season about how Leighton’s bright future was now stymied by the Blackhawks signing the evil Nikolai Khabibulin. Leighton would now be forced to fight Anderson for the backup position. The Hawks went with Anderson, and Michael Leighton would never again do anything to help the Chicago Blackhawks.
Age 24 – Craig Anderson would serve as Khabibulin’s primary backup in Chicago. In 29 GP, Anderson would be shelled, to the tune of a 3.32 GAA and .886 save percentage. Of course, those numbers were identical (but for .03 of GAA) to Khabibulin’s.
Leighton, having been traded to Buffalo, was now on a depth chart led by Ryan Miller and Martin Biron. Shunted back down to the AHL to split time with former Flyers prospect JM Pelletier, Leighton was awful. With a .888 save percentage and 3.21 GAA, Leighton lost his shine as a prospect.
Decision: Anderson. Leighton was now an AHL lifer, and Anderson was a career backup at best.
Age 25 – Michael Leighton would be non-tendered by Buffalo and would sign with Anaheim. Clearly rebounded from the previous season, Leights would start off strong in Portland (2.31/.910) before getting called up to Anaheim when both J.S. Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov were injured. However, roster shenanigans would lead to Leighton being claimed by Nashville. The Preds would play him in one game (20 minutes of relief where he gave up 2 goals on 10 shots against Buffalo) while Tomas Vokoun (who will factor into this story again) was injured. Once Vokoun was healthy, Leighton hit the waiver wires and was picked up by, of course, the Flyers. As many might remember, he was called up when Esche got hurt, backed up Nitty, played in four games (3.69/.882) and was waived (although his numbers with the Phantoms in limited playing time were sick, including a .948 save percentage). Leights was then claimed by the Canadiens, but didn’t play again that season.
His old friend Craig Anderson, meanwhile, had been dealt in the offseason to Florida for a 6th round draft pick. He would spend the 06-07 season in Rochester (2.56/.919) and also picked up a cup of coffee in Florida. In five games Anderson had an impressive .931 save percentage and 2.21 GAA.
Decision: Anderson. Both players showed they had mastered the AHL and, whereas Leights was bouncing around between five different organizations, Anderson had won himself a backup job in sunny Miami.
Age 26 – Craig Anderson won the Panthers backup job in camp and, in only 17 games, put up a .935 save percentage and 2.25 GAA.
Michael Leighton, on the other hand, was traded to Carolina for a 7th round pick, and was ping-ponged between Albany (where he won the AHL’s best goaltender award thanks to a 2.10 GAA and .931 save percentage) and Carolina, where he played three rather mediocre games (2.66/.897).
Decision: Anderson. He’s now solidified himself as a good NHL backup while Michael Leighton cannot get a shot in the NHL.
Age 27 – Craig Anderson is given his first real chance to play while backing up Tomas Vokoun and has an excellent save percentage (.921) in 31 GP. Leights would see limited playing time behind Cam Ward, posting a mediocre .901 save percentage in 19 GP.
Decision: Anderson. His excellent performance earned him a chance to win the starting job in Colorado.
Age 28 – We all know what happened. Anderson got worked like a horse in Colorado, while Leighton was terrible in Carolina before coming here and being excellent, posting a near identical save percentage to Anderson.
Anderson started out as the better prospect and was eventually passed by Leighton. But a bad situation in Chicago and the lockout screwed up both of their developments. Eventually, both would be given the chance to play and both thrived, Anderson just getting his a little sooner. It was a smart decision for the Avalanche to sign Anderson last year, and would’ve been smart for us to sign him. Likewise, it’s a smart decision for the Flyers to pick up Leighton. Is he going to be the second coming of Bernie Parent? No. But I can think of worse ways (Turco) for us to wait for the Bobrovsky Experience.