Leighton glad to be back with Flyers
With his 2-year contract with the Flyers finally set to run out last spring, Michael Leighton began to put together a plan to get back to the NHL.
He signed a $3.1 million deal with the Flyers in June 2010, a few weeks after that infamous Patrick Kane Stanley Cup-clinching goal snuck through his legs in Game 6. Leighton spent much of the next two seasons buried with the Phantoms, more because of salary-cap restraints and the emergence of Sergei Bobrovsky than his own abilities.
At varying points, the NHL felt so much further away than a simple injury call-up. In fact, when the Flyers needed a backup goaltender last year, journeyman Jason Bacashihua rode the pine since they could not afford Leighton's cap hit.
"I think it was always in the back of my mind," Leighton said. "I was wondering if I would have to sign in Russia this summer and start the season there. I still talked to [Paul Holmgren] quite a bit. He mentioned that they wanted to keep me.
"There are two choices. You can either give up, not work hard and retire. Or you can work hard and try and get back."
His contract even got off to a rocky start, undergoing back surgery in early October 2010, for a herniated disk that was pressing on a nerve. He said he suffered the injury that summer training but did not notify the team, trying to play through it. There was some thought that Leighton's injury, which ran through nerves in his legs and feet, would hamper the remainder of his career.
"My back has been fine now," Leighton said. "I don't think I'm all that different from any 31-year-old getting out of bed who plays professional hockey for a living. I have aches and pains all over my body, not just my back."
Now, Leighton is back for his second tour of the duty with the Flyers, with a more cap-friendly deal, though he never really left. He simply turned in two, All-Star worthy seasons with struggling Phantoms teams in the meantime. Most people, though, forget Leighton is the Flyers' backup.
This time, his assignment alongside as a backup to a noted comedian and astronomer, Ilya Bryzgalov, is almost as fascinating as the Flyers' three-headed goaltender circus in which he participated 2 years ago.
"I'm going to stay on planet Earth," Leighton joked, when asked whether he'll explore space with Bryzgalov. He said that the two get along well, and that Bryzgalov would have to teach him about space.
After Bryzgalov, Leighton just may be the Flyers' second-most important player during a shortened and condensed season.
"I really don't know if I'm going to play more or less," Leighton said. "We're going to play a lot of games in a short period [48 in 99 days]. That's tough on anybody. It depends on how 'Bryz' feels."
Bryzgalov said on Tuesday that he was comfortable playing "a lot," citing his 70-game seasons in Phoenix. Some believe Bryzgalov is at his best when he is in a rhythm playing games. Either way, Leighton will see his fair share of action.
The Flyers have interest in adding free-agent defenseman Kurtis Foster, according to multiple reports. A message left on Foster's cellphone on Friday evening went unreturned.
With Andrej Meszaros' status for Opening Day in doubt (Achilles') and Phantoms call-ups Erik Gustafsson (ankle) and Marc-Andre Bourdon (concussion) still injured, the Flyers need depth at the position. Especially in a shortened season expected to have injuries, you can't have too many defensemen.
Foster, 31, would add size with his 6-5 frame. He has a heavy righthanded shot. He split last season among the Ducks, Devils and Wild, returning for his second stint in Minnesota. He skated in 13 games in Finland during the lockout, but returned to North America seeking an NHL job.
Foster, who earned $1.8 million last season, is not expected to cost nearly as much as he did. He earned that contract after an impressive 42-point campaign for Tampa Bay in 2009-10. The Flyers are expected to have significant cap room this season, operating well under the $70.2 million ceiling once Chris Pronger's $4.91 million salary is added to the long-term injury list.
Teams are not allowed to sign or trade players until the NHL's drafted CBA is ratified by the NHLPA's 740 members, which is expected to happen early Saturday morning, though Foster could theoretically be in for the start of a 6-day camp.
Both Flyers games next weekend, on Saturday at 3 p.m. the Wells Fargo Center against Pittsburgh and in Buffalo on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., are expected to be nationally televised on NBC. It would be the first time in NHL history that a major broadcast network will carry back-to-back days of regular-season games . . . The Flyers are all in town. Wayne Simmonds arrived at the Skate Zone for the first time on Friday, along Brayden Schenn, Zac Rinaldo, Sean Couturier and Tye McGinn.
"If everyone played with half as much heart as him, we'd all be fine in here. When he talks, guys listen. I don't think you could pick a better guy on the team right now than 'G.' He's our best player. He's a competitor."
- Scott Hartnell when asked by the Daily News on Friday whether he thought Claude Giroux was ready to be the 19th captain in Flyers history.
The NHL is expected to release a full schedule on Saturday. What's the holdup? The league is waiting for the NHLPA's 740 members to ratify the drafted "memorandum of understanding," which will be completed by Saturday at 8 a.m.
The Flyers' 6-day training camp will open Sunday at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J. Some players opted for voluntary physicals to allow for on-ice practices on Sunday. They are scheduled to skate anytime from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and, as always, it is free and open to the public.
What can we expect of the schedule? According to a league source, it's a 48-game setup that includes five games each against the Rangers and Devils (10) and four games each against the Penguins and Islanders (eight). The Flyers will face the Rangers three times at home and the Devils three times on the road. They also will see each of the East's other teams at home and on the road (20). What about the other 10 games? They'll visit Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Buffalo and Tampa Bay each an extra time; Boston, Ottawa, Florida, Carolina and Washington will all make an additional trip to Philly.
As you can tell, the Atlantic Division schedule is unbalanced. Why is that important? In an expected three-team race (Penguins, Rangers, Flyers), one team could have a considerable advantage if its extra two games were against the weaker Devils and Islanders. The disadvantage, in this case, will likely belong to the Rangers. They will have to face the Penguins and Flyers for their additional matchups - and they will be visiting the Flyers on the road for that game. If you'll recall, the Flyers were 0-6-0 against the Rangers last season, including a 2-1 loss in the Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park. The Flyers' other extra team is the Devils. According to league sources, the Flyers and Penguins were both vying for the extra home game between the two rivals, so the NHL decided it would be easier to leave both teams out of the mix instead of having one disappointed.
The Flyers are expected to begin the season with seven games in the first 11 days, which includes back-to-back games in Florida and Tampa Bay. They will likely be on the road from Feb. 11-20,with a six-game trip.
Visit Philly.com/FrequentFlyers for a full schedule Saturday once it is released.