As they assess season, Flyers have to address goaltending

Michael Leighton was strong in the playoffs for Flyers, but he wasn't a difference-maker when he needed to be.
Michael Leighton was strong in the playoffs for Flyers, but he wasn't a difference-maker when he needed to be.
Posted: June 11, 2010

THIS IS a lousy time for any sports team to make big decisions, in the hours after the kind of exhausting, emotional run like the Flyers just made. They are feeling what you are feeling right now, as the adrenaline of the last 2 months ebbs and then disappears completely. People on teams like these sometimes do little but sleep for days.

At a certain point, though, general manager Paul Holmgren will have to begin the final assessment.

With that, three points:

First, that Holmgren should be applauded for doing what he said he was going to do - that is, build a roster for the postseason. The Chris Pronger deal was worth it, period, and this playoff run demonstrated why. The hiring of Peter Laviolette as coach was the right move, obviously. This is a good group and a group that grew up a lot in the last 6 months. That is Holmgren's doing.

Second, that the danger Holmgren faces is the temptation to stand pat. It would be the biggest mistake he could make. The truth is that the Flyers are not going to be able to avoid both Pittsburgh and Washington in the playoffs very often, as they did this season. It was their great good fortune, and they took advantage of it, and the manner in which they did it will be to their everlasting credit. But it was good fortune and no one should ever forget it.

Third, that the goaltending needs to be addressed. Again.

I am not here to bury Michael Leighton, but everybody saw what happened. He was pulled in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, deservedly. He was pulled in Game 5, deservedly. In Game 6, he let in one goal on a wrist shot from the dot - the kind of puck that just needs to be stopped in the final - and he let in an impossible goal in overtime that decided the game.

It is true that the Flyers appeared exhausted in many ways. It is true, too, that the Blackhawks were the better team. To pin this exclusively on the goaltending would be an unfair reading of what happened.

But you cannot escape the way the thing played out. After Brian Boucher suffered his knee injuries in Game 5 of the second round against Boston, the Flyers built a wall in front of Leighton, for the most part. And while he got the win in Game 7 and pulled himself together, the truth is that he did need to pull himself together after waving at air in the first period as the Bruins built a 3-0 lead.

And, yes, he had three shutouts in the conference finals against Montreal - but people wrote at the time and said at the time that it was the least-stressful string of shutouts anyone could remember. All of the Canadiens' scoring was packed into one line and Pronger tied a rope around them and that was that.

Then came the final. Again, it wasn't all Leighton's fault. The Flyers were up against a faster, more explosive team - and that is the truth. Still, the goaltender did not reasonably maximize the Flyers' chances in the series - and that is also the truth.

Of course, it was never supposed to be Leighton's job. It was Ray Emery's job, back when. That was Holmgren's big gamble but we never really saw how those dice fell because Emery suffered a potentially career-threatening hip injury. We all know the outlines of what happened after that - Boucher getting hurt, Leighton emerging out of nowhere and then getting hurt himself, seven goaltenders dressing in all, and then Boucher emerging as the man who was the hero of the shootout on the last day of the regular season, the man who also outdueled Martin Broduer in the first round of the playoffs against New Jersey.

Now, well, what?

The truth is, you do not need Brodeur or Patrick Roy anymore to win a Cup. Antti Niemi, after all, is about to have his name engraved on the thing. If you want to argue that a tandem of Leighton (a free agent) and Boucher (already signed) is good enough to make another run at it, well, put it this way: It would have been crazy talk a decade ago, but it is not now.

Still, if you are the Flyers, don't you have to be a little better there? Remember Pittsburgh and Washington. The Flyers' star players are not as good as the Penguins' and the Capitals' star players. The way you beat them is with balance and with goaltending.

I'd make Mike Richards, Claude Giroux and Pronger untouchable. After that, I'd be willing to talk about anybody if it would significantly upgrade the goaltending and add to the defensive depth. That is the other issue. Pronger did wear down in the last few games, finally. They need another defenseman whom they are not afraid to play.

But that is for sometime in the near future, not for today.

Send e-mail to

hofmanr@phillynews.com,

or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at

http://go.philly.com/theidlerich.

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