Commentary

Shocking! Flyers have more goalie woes

Updated: March 19, 2010, 6:41 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

At the best of times, being an NHL GM is like being a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Danger is everywhere, whether it's the crapshoot of drafting the right players or signing the right free agents or hiring the right coach.

But you have to wonder about NHL GMs who willfully increase their exposure to having their tails squashed, like Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren, who is now left with what is, at best, suspect goaltending and, at worst, a train wreck waiting to happen heading into the postseason.

Starter Michael Leighton left Tuesday's game in Nashville with a high-ankle sprain, and the club announced late Thursday afternoon that he is gone for eight to 10 weeks.

Now, what looked to be a significant risk -- turning over the Flyers' netminding chores to an untested journeyman like Leighton -- has quickly evolved into what appears to be a monstrous blunder.

It is true Holmgren did take a run at Florida Panthers netminder Tomas Vokoun at the March 3 trade deadline but backed off when the cost was going to include sniper Jeff Carter.

Fair enough.

But when Plan A failed, what happened to Plan B or even Plan C? In Philadelphia, where goaltending isn't a storyline but a recurring nightmare, we are talking Plan Z here.

Let's be honest: Holmgren was already juggling grenades while walking a tightrope by turning the Flyers' playoff netminding duties over to Leighton to begin with. No question Leighton turned out to be a great find for Philadelphia, especially when it became clear injuries were going to derail starter Ray Emery's season. But the native of Petrolia, Ontario, had never played in a single NHL playoff game. All of which is now moot, of course, with Leighton out.

Holmgren is now juggling grenades while walking a tightrope over a vat of boiling oil now that his playoff starting rotation looks something like this: veteran Brian Boucher and some other dude. With all due respect to Boucher, a fine fellow who has fashioned himself a serviceable NHL career, this has "Grade-A Philadelphia goaltending fiasco" written all over it.

Boucher acknowledged in a conference call Wednesday evening that it's been a long time since he was a starter for an NHL team in the playoffs. How long? Well, the last time it happened, Boucher looked to be the goaltender of the future for the Flyers, that's how long ago it was. He went 11-7 for the Flyers in the spring of 2000. Since then, he has played 127 minutes of postseason action, 125 of those for the Flyers in 2001 and 2002 and two minutes for the San Jose Sharks in 2008.

As for Boucher's backup, the picture doesn't get any less grisly. The Flyers have called up prospect Jeremy Duchene because AHL Adirondack Phantoms starter Johan Backlund is injured. Even if we assume the 28-year-old Backlund gets healthy enough at some point to back up Boucher, he has yet to appear in an NHL game of any kind, let alone a postseason contest.

Here's the thing about the Flyers. Although they've been wildly inconsistent this season -- coach John Stevens was fired early on, and they do take some of the dumbest penalties of all time -- this is a team that figured to be a handful come playoff time.

The Flyers boast a terrific blue line anchored by veterans like Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger. They have a deep, talented, often physical forward unit and a Stanley Cup-winning coach in Peter Laviolette, all of which suggested this team should have been able to throw a scare into Eastern Conference powers Washington, Pittsburgh and New Jersey.

Imagining Leighton leading the Flyers on a long playoff run took at least a healthy suspension of disbelief, but Boucher? Hey, we remember Ken Dryden and Steve Penney coming out of nowhere to do the job, but this is a whole other level of suspension.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue: How exactly does a team that trades a significant portion of its future to get Pronger to help it erase 35 years of Stanley Cup futility end up with Boucher and some faceless minor leaguer as its playoff goaltending tandem? How does that happen?

Surely New York Islanders GM Garth Snow wasn't asking the world for superfluous backup Martin Biron prior to the trade deadline. Was Holmgren ticked that Biron, who led the Flyers to a 2008 Eastern Conference finals berth, wouldn't sign a long-term deal with the Flyers last offseason?

If Snow was being unreasonable in his demands for Biron (and if he was, shame on him after promising Biron he would do his best to move him), what about Dan Ellis in Nashville, a goaltender who doesn't fit into the Preds' long-term plans? Both of those goaltenders make less than $2 million. What about Josh Harding in Minnesota, another goaltender headed for free agency? The Flyers did pick up John Grahame, who has seen the inside of an NHL net, but lost him on waivers to Colorado.

Sure, this is all hindsight. Who knew Leighton was going to get hurt? Still, if someone made you bet your life savings at the start of the season which NHL franchise would find itself in an untenable goaltending position come playoff time, you wouldn't have to go far down the list of teams before you came to the Flyers.

We know that Holmgren's answer to the goaltending question before Leighton's injury was that apart from a handful of goalies -- Martin Brodeur, Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood (who isn't even the starter anymore) -- not many goaltenders who'll hit the playoff path this spring have won Stanley Cups.

That's true. So maybe we're wrong to be so pessimistic about the Flyers' goaltending prospects and chances at a deep playoff run. Maybe a la Robert Redford in "The Natural," Boucher will summon his inner Bernie Parent and lead the Flyers on an enchanted march through the playoffs this spring. More power to Boucher if he can do it. It would be a great story, and we'll be happy to write it if it happens.

But if that's what your Stanley Cup dreams consist of -- hoping against hope, crossing your fingers, saying "Pretty, pretty please, don't let our goaltending stink," and looking for a veteran backup who hasn't played a meaningful playoff game in a decade to lead you to glory -- that's a pretty sad state of affairs.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.