Crashing the Crease: Everything Old Is New Again

Image courtesy of the Courier Post Online

Paul Holmgren has wasted little time in filling the backup goaltender position left vacant from the Sergei Bobrovsky trade, extending journeyman backup Michael Leighton on a one-year, $900k contract.

Ever a polarizing figure, some fans would rather Leighton never don a Flyers uniform again; others still believe him to be the savior of that season and are glad to see his return. However, there is one thing that cannot be ignored by both fans and detractors: in an incredibly weak backup market that saw almost every other option sign longer and more expensive contracts (with yesterday’s Al Montoya signing being the exception), Leighton was Holmgren’s best option.

After inking his fresh new deal, Leighton joined a conference call to discuss rejoining the Philadelphia Flyers, and in it he admitted that the Patrick Kane goal still haunts him and he has spent the past two seasons working to tweak and improve his game. Unfortunately, limited footage is available of Leighton’s time in Adirondack, but there are enough highlight packages from games to begin to evaluate where Leighton’s game stands in 2012. Highlight reels are not usually a fair means to assess a goalie’s performance as they tend to be biased toward showing goals against rather than saves, but in Leighton’s case the highlight reels are actually helpful in getting reacquainted.

The key to Leighton’s game is quite simple: size. He is a big man and is fairly effective so long as he is playing with good form and staying square to the shooter. The problem is that he lacks athleticism and quickness. Outside of the occasional flashy glove save, his reflexes are below average and his shot recovery — the ability to move from one save selection and get set for the next opportunity — is outright bad. He can make up for these shortcomings, as he did in 2010, by simply playing to the shooter and forcing a shot while relying on the defense to prevent lateral passes and help clean up his rebounds.

Leighton’s main flaw that he has concentrated on in the past two years? Staying square to the shooter. On the Kane goal, Leighton’s inability to readjust for both depth and lateral angle led him to cheat a bit, favoring the far side a bit and failing to stay square. Unfortunately, looking over some of the goals he allowed late in the Phantoms’ season would indicate that this is still an issue. Here’s one example from a game against the Albany Devils on March 10, 2012.

Check out the goal he allows just after the 15 second mark:

Again in a game against Worcester on April 14, he cheats to the shooter and comes out on a bad angle, allowing a pass back to just get right around him (2:30 in):

Both of these goals show a failure to play basic angles correctly, or to present his full blocking surface by staying square. On the first goal, he drops too deep and slides too far to the post, and is off-angle much like the Kane goal, opening up the high far side corner. On the second, he challenges the low shooter too heavily, playing down to the goal line but even challenging out of the crease. If he simply plays down to the post without sliding out so far, Leighton is big enough that a simple push over should let him get a pad on that shot.

His other flaws are his poor recovery and lateral movement, which defense can help account for, as well as his rebound control. Because Leighton simply drops to stop the first shot and plants wherever he is, he is not mobile enough to get to any second chances – and he has a tendency to kick a lot of rebounds into the slot, especially far side where recovery is even harder.

The following goal is a perfect example of the sorts of bad rebounds and recoveries that are typical of Leighton:

And another:

Ultimately, it looks — with what limited scouting is possible — like Leighton’s game really hasn’t changed since 2010. Hopefully re-joining an NHL squad and working with Jeff Reese regularly will help Leighton regain the form he had in 2010, but ultimately he played above his abilities in that season so it might be best to keep expectations realistic.

Ilya Bryzgalov is expected to play the vast majority of the games this season, so as long as Leighton can win at least half his starts and be decent off the bench when needed and just make sure he’s square, big, and tight on the first shot, he should be perfectly serviceable.