Ah, the curious case of Michael Leighton. It no doubt falls into the 'good problem to have' category, but to say seeing him in goal makes us uncomfortable would be an understatement to say the least. Giving him the job for the rest of the season and the playoffs? Just that thought scares the crap out of us.
But why is that? Why can't we trust Michael Leighton? Is it because he's a career backup who in six NHL seasons has never won more than six games in a single year? Is it because as Flyers fans, we're simply preconditioned not to trust goaltenders?
We're all nervous that Leighton is going to revert back to form, and these are certainly valid concerns. It's a strong possibility that it does happen at some point, in fact. But for this season, with Ray Emery hurt, Brian Boucher seemingly banished, and an inability to afford another goalie, Leighton needs to be the answer. This doesn't mean the Flyers should go out and sign the guy long term just yet, but in this situation this season, Michael Leighton has done nothing but earn the starting job on this team.
It's hard to argue with the statistics, and they say flat out that Leighton has been nothing but awesome as a Flyer.
#49 / Goalie / Philadelphia Flyers
May 19, 1981
|2009 w/ PHI - Michael Leighton||18||1015||12||3||1||37||2.19||491||454||.925||1|
Hell, he's arguably been the most valuable player on the team this season. The team seems to play better in front of him. Maybe that's a criticism of Leighton, actually, because the team themselves aren't as confident playing in front of him. But that doesn't matter. It works, and the stats clearly prove that.
There are uncertainties however in saying, 'here are the keys, Mike. The job is yours.' We don't know what his motivation for playing so well is right now. Playing behind Cam Ward in Carolina, he knew he was never going to be the guy there. Maybe he sees a situation here where, if he plays well enough, he could easily take over the job since there's really nobody in his way. That's a lot of motivation to play your heart out.
If you give him the job now with no conditions though, he could get too comfortable and he could lose the edge he has right now; he could lose that motivation. It's a fine line the organization has to walk here in dealing with Leighton. He knows Emery is going to come back eventually and that he might lose the starting gig again when it happens, and right now, that seems enough to keep him going.
So here's what Peter Laviolette and the Flyers can do.
One: ignore the trade market for goaltending at the deadline. When Emery comes back after this current injury, give him a game or two but then throw Leighton back in right away. Make Emery your back up, but keep Leighton on the edge, with the feeling that if he makes a mistake, Emery is right there to take the job back. He's been under that pressure his entire Flyers career and there's really no reason to stop it now. It works.
Two: announce that he's your starter as soon as the Olympic break concludes. Say that you're going to hand those keys over, giving Leighton the spot he's earned. That will likely piss off Emery quite a bit, but honestly, what has he done since early November to earn that spot? Say that. Bank on the vote of confidence in Leighton giving him even more mojo when he hits the ice. It could make the guy play even better, who knows.
In either situation, you have a guy who's earned a starting job get that starting job, but you still have a safety net in case he does revert to the mean with Emery and Boucher.