Leighton's journey defines his success
PHILADELPHIA -- He is the king of the continental breakfasts, the master of the LaQuintas and Marriotts and hundreds of other anonymous hotels that are the currency of a life lived on the edge of the NHL.
In his family's home in Windsor, Ontario, the basement is festooned with jerseys of the teams that have marked Michael Leighton's journey across the hockey map: Norfolk, Chicago, Rochester, Portland, Nashville, Philadelphia, Albany, Carolina. Each stop along the way, there has been a chance to learn, an opportunity to prove he belonged and, ultimately, another phone call to another jersey, another hotel and another continental breakfast.
"Breakfasts get old," Leighton told ESPN.com on Monday with a wry grin.
Even now, with Leighton having rescued the Flyers' season, having guided the team to within three wins of their first Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1997 and seven wins of their first Cup since 1975, his future is no more certain today than it was on Dec. 15. On that day, Leighton was physically in Albany, the minor-league affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, sent there to await his journey through re-entry waivers.
Philadelphia starter Ray Emery was injured, leaving journeyman Brian Boucher to hold the fort. Leighton figured something was in the air and wasn't surprised when he got the call that he had been claimed by the Flyers.
It wasn't the first time Leighton was a Flyer. Leighton had signed with Anaheim the summer before the 2006-07 season and played 16 games in Portland for its AHL affiliate. He was picked up off waivers by Nashville on Nov. 27 and played one game for the Predators. On Jan. 11, the Flyers claimed Leighton off waivers and he played four games for the Flyers and five more for their AHL affiliate before Montreal claimed him Feb. 27. He never played a game for the Habs, but ended up getting traded to Carolina for a 2007 seventh-round draft pick, the equivalent of a box of pucks and a corn dog.
Leighton recently told reporters he had considered going to Europe that offseason, but was glad he didn't. He ended up playing a lot in the AHL, where he was one of the top goaltenders, and served as an occasional backup to Hurricanes starter Cam Ward, including during Carolina's trip to last season's Eastern Conference finals.
In some ways, it was a period that defined not just Leighton's career, but also his character.
"I've obviously played for a lot of teams and some people look at it and say, 'Hey, that's a good thing. Everybody wants you,'" he said with a laugh. "Obviously, my goal is to play in the NHL, it's not to play in the AHL or go to Russia. My job is to do my best and try to stay in the NHL. That's my dream, so I'm living it right now. I obviously want to stay here. I'd rather play another 10 years here than go down and play in the minors for another 10 years.
"I'm just trying to stay positive and work at my dream. You know, I'm turning 29 soon [his birthday is Wednesday] and not getting any younger, but goalies they say develop as they get older. So I'm hoping that that's true with me, and I just keep getting better."
The entire situation is almost too strange for words. The Flyers were drifting when Leighton arrived from Albany. They'd already fired coach John Stevens and Peter Laviolette was struggling to get the squad to buy into the systems he was selling. Leighton came and helped stabilize the situation and moved the Flyers from a bottom-feeder in the Eastern Conference to a playoff contender.
"He deserves a tremendous amount of credit because he came in and he really saved our season back just after Christmastime," Laviolette said Monday.
You wonder the toll it takes on a player; bouncing around, being called up from the minors, sent back down, cast aside on the waiver wire and picked up for a few days to plug a hole and then sent down or claimed again off waivers.
Laviolette has a sense of it, being a minor-league player for most of his career (he played just 12 NHL games).
"When you go through the minor leagues, I think eventually you have to want to be good for yourself," Laviolette explained. "You know that you may be going down, you may be going through waivers, you may be changing teams. Then it just becomes about being professional and not based so much on the outcome.
"I think a lot of players that have that transition, they go through that. The good ones that end up playing a good, long time in the minors and making their way back to the NHL, you know, they kind of direct themselves in that way. It's about being professional."
When it comes to the technical aspects of Leighton's game, Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese said they made some subtle tweaks when Leighton arrived in Philadelphia. Leighton has credited Reese with helping redefine his style. There were elements that have improved, like anticipating passes and shots, being in position to make not just the first stop but the second with his body as opposed to diving with arms and legs to make a second save. It has meant setting Leighton further back in the crease, but the reward has been worth the risk.
Still, Reese said there is really a simple explanation for what has transpired with Leighton and the Flyers.
"I think that his best quality is between his ears," Reese said. "He's got a very nice demeanor. That's all mindset. It has nothing to do with positioning."
Before suffering a severe high-ankle sprain on March 16, Leighton was 16-5-2 for the Flyers. Then, when Boucher went down in the Boston series, Leighton jumped seamlessly into an elimination game and helped backstop the Flyers to a historic comeback against the Bruins. He is 3-0 with a 1.11 goals-against average and .959 save percentage in his first postseason experience.
"It's unbelievable the way he played, not able to play a game for two months and come in in that tough situation against Boston and now facing Montreal," Simon Gagne said Monday. "And at the same time, I'm very happy for him. He worked hard to be here, and I'm talking when he was hurt, working hard to get back and, you know, get some rehab and try to be back where he is now. I'm very happy for him."
Hard to imagine this run might be just another turn on the treadmill of his career, but he seems at peace with the fact it might be just that. There are already rumors the Flyers will look to go after an experienced netminder in the offseason, like Marty Turco. They were reportedly interested in Jaroslav Halak and/or Carey Price at the trade deadline. Tomas Vokoun was on their radar, too.
Will there be a place for the man who saved their season, and maybe much more? Leighton insists he's trying to enjoy the moment and let the future bring what it will.
"I'm not looking that far ahead right now. Just, obviously, I want to have a good playoff here and go from there," he said. "In the summer, we'll see what happens. It's been nice to travel around and play for different teams, but it would be nice to stay with one team and get my family there and get a house and have some stability."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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