Flyers skirt goaltending issue

Both Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher are back for their second tour of duty for the Flyers. (QMI...

Both Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher are back for their second tour of duty for the Flyers. (QMI AGENCY)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:23 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA For years, everybody asked the same question about the Philadelphia Flyers: Their goaltending. Huh?

John Vanbiesbrouck.

Roman Cechmanek.

Robert Esche.

Antero Niittymaki.

Jeff Hackett.

Sean Burke.

Ray Emery.

Those guys all had some success in the NHL and did the job with varying degrees of success. Most were blamed for the failures of some pretty talented Philly teams. Theirs are just a few of the 15 names in the Flyers crease since Ron Hextall the last great born-and-bred Flyers goaltender played in the 1998-99 season.

Now, it turns out, maybe the Flyers were just ahead of the curve.

They rode waiver pickup Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher both back for their second tour of duty for the Flyers to the Stanley Cup final last spring in a league where the emphasis on having a stud goaltender with a great post-season resume has almost totally disappeared.

Look at the goaltenders among the final four teams last spring: Leighton/Boucher; Cup-winning rookie Antti Niemi with the Chicago Blackhawks; Jaroslav Halak bursting on the scene for the Montreal Canadiens; and Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks.

The Hawks said goodbye to Niemi when his price got too rich, the Habs traded Halak when they had to choose between him and Carey Price and Nabokov left for the Kontinental Hockey League.

So, now we have the Flyers and what amounts to goaltending stability.

Im excited we kept our goaltenders because they both played extremely well in the situations they were put in and those situations werent easy, Flyers captain Mike Richards said.

The Flyers started out with Emery and Boucher last season, but Emery, trying to rehabilitate his NHL career after a season in Russia, was felled by a bad hip which required surgery (he still isnt in an NHL camp). Leighton was picked up on waivers and had a 16-5-2 record with a .916 save percentage.

His arrival and a change in coaches John Stevens was fired and Peter Laviolette was brought in coincided with a resurgence for the Flyers who at one point were 14th in the Eastern Conference.

The carousel we got on was rough, Laviolette said. Leighton, from the time he got here, did nothing but post the best numbers in the NHL. You look at where we were Dec. 21st and he led the way.

Leighton was rewarded with a two-year, $3.1-million deal in June.

Still, there will be questions about the Flyers and their goaltending, more wondering if Leighton simply had a good but will turn out to be a brief run, or, at 29 years of age, has simply hit his stride.

Certainly Leighton and Boucher will have a team in front of them that can stake up against just about anybody in the East. They return most of their strong forward rank intact, free agent Nikolai Zherdev pretty much replacing Simon Gagne, who was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for defenceman Matt Walker and a fourth-round draft pick.

The big improvement for the Flyers this season is on the blue line where they have made an upgrade in their fifth and sixth holes, trading for Andrej Meszaros from the Lightning and signing free agent Sean ODonnell. They replace the departed Lukas Krajicek and Oskars Bartulis, pushed down the chart. Their top four of Chris Pronger, Matt Carle, Braydon Cobourn and Kimmo Timonen stack up with just about anybodys in the East and with a little more support behind them, they might not have to clock as many minutes in the regular season.

It seemed like most of the year we were fighting to get out of hole and you do what you have to, said Laviolette of the heavy workload for the top four last season. Its tough to worry about Game 7 of the final when youre in 14th place in the Eastern Conference.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca


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