On The Edge Blog

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Leighton, salary cap could end Flyers' goalie carousel

I remember thinking way back in the summer (those warm days without snow) that this would finally be the season that the Flyers did not have a goaltender controversy.

Well, like my Super Bowl prediction, I could not have been more wrong!

Two years ago, I wrote a column stating that three things happen on the Flyers’ roster every year around this time: a concussion knocks a star out of the lineup, a superstar is underachieving, and the backup goalie is doing far better than the starter. Luckily (of course I probably just jinxed it), no Flyer is working his way back from a concussion, but sadly, we do have a superstar going through a season-long slump and, of course, we have upheaval in the crease.

Right now, only Simon Gagne is mired in a deep slump, although I would like to see some more production out of guys like Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux and James VanRiemsdyk. Despite being the third-highest paid forward on the roster, Gagne has provided the Flyers with just seven goals, which breaks down to a cost of $750,000 per goal scored so far this season.

I don’t know why a guy who scored 34 goals last year suddenly can’t seem to find the back of the net, but with a salary cap number of $5.25 million per year through next season, he better start scoring soon or will be forced to take a massive paycut in 2012.

While Gagne’s contract is essentially unmovable, the Flyers’ goaltender situation certainly is in limbo, so I will now attempt to break down the Flyers’ umpteenth consecutive year of goalie drama, caused this year by Ray Emery’s potentially season-ending injury.

First, a little background information.

Since the 1994-95 season, the Flyers have had 19 different goalies set up shop in the crease, eight different netminders have started a playoff game, and five times, a goalie started in the playoffs despite not leading the team in games played that season.

Back in January 2008, when Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki were battling for the temporary position of the Flyers’ top goalie, I compared those stunningly awful statistics to the New Jersey Devils, who won three Stanley Cups in the same time period while Martin Brodeur led the team in games played each year and was their only playoff goalie. In that same column, I wrote that the Flyers had the chance to end the “goalie carousel” by naming Niittymaki as the starter, and then sticking with him through the ups and downs.

Needless to say, Niittymaki did not get that chance, but is currently dominating for the Tampa Bay Lightning while Biron’s best work this year has come while playing for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League.

So now, in 2010, the Flyers have a chance to start fresh and end the carousel by naming Michael Leighton as the starting goalie for the rest of the year, and then for next season as well.

While former goalie coach Reggie Lemelin, who was fired after last season, ruined the form and confidence of every young goaltender the Flyers had during his 13 seasons with the club, new goalie coach Jeff Reese has actually fixed several flaws in Leighton’s style, turning him into the stonewall netminder that has led the Flyers to a 12-3-1 record as a starter in two stints as an injury replacement.

And yes, I am placing the blame for the last 13 years of goaltender instability on Lemelin’s shoulders, as we have watched Brian Boucher, Robert Esche, and Niittymaki all look like the goalie of the future, only to see them flame out soon after they began to take the lion’s share of the work in practice under Lemelin’s tutelage.

Despite all that, this could finally be the year that the Flyers begin to develop some consistency in the blue paint by sticking with Leighton instead of making a desperation move once the NHL’s roster freeze ends after the Winter Olympics.

It seems as though every other team nurtures their young goalie, giving them time to grow and develop without the fear of an overpriced, under-skilled veteran taking their job. If you don’t believe me, just sort this year’s goaltenders by save percentage and you will find that all of the top guys followed this path, including youngsters Tuukka Rask, Jimmy Howard and Antti Nemi, along with veterans Ryan Miller, Henrik Lundqvist, Evgeni Nabakov, and Miikka Kirpusoff.

Thankfully, I don’t think the Flyers have a choice in the matter this year, or surely General Manager Paul Holmgren would screw it up.

In Leighton’s 18 games this year with the Flyers, he has a 2.19 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage, which would both rank in the top six in the NHL for the season. However, based on nearly two decades of impulsive bad decisions, he will be the starting goalie for the rest of the season only because the Flyers don’t have the room under the salary cap to trade for Marty Turco (2.63/.915), Tim Thomas (2.52/.915), or J.S. Giguere (2.90/.907), who has already been traded to Toronto.

All season, Flyers fans (including me) have been groaning that a bunch of overpaid mistakes made by Holmgren have left the team with no cap space, but this year, that might be a blessing as it hopefully will result in the phones staying silent in the offices at the Wachovia Center and Leighton in net the rest of the season.

Like the “On the Edge” column? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show.


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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
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