Frank Seravalli: Flyers' dilemma: Three healthy goalies

Posted: November 15, 2010

It is the 1,800-pound gorilla in the Flyers' locker room that no one wants to talk about.

And it may be the only poignant question surrounding a Flyers team that has dominated the NHL, collecting 17 out of a possible 18 points with an 8-0-1 record in its last nine games.

But now, with Michael Leighton returning to practice last Wednesday for the first time since having a herniated disk in his back repaired on Oct. 11, it is one that bears asking: What do the Flyers do when Leighton is ready to return?

For Flyers backup Brian Boucher, the answer seems simple.

Sergei Bobrovsky is not going anywhere.

"Let's call a spade a spade," Boucher said. " 'Bob' has been phenomenal. He really has been fantastic. I said it before the season, just watching him play, that he would be the starter pretty soon."

In reality, the Flyers have three options once Leighton returns from the long-term injured reserve list, which has kept his salary off the cap since Oct. 7: They can keep Leighton, they can keep Boucher or they can carry three goalies on the roster.

The latter would be the toughest, given roster-space issues (23-man maximum) and salary-cap concerns, unless Ian Laperriere's $1.167 million salary is moved to the long-term injured reserve list - which is something the Flyers have not been willing to do because of his over-35 contract status.

This is not unfamiliar territory for Leighton. He was pegged to be the starter in Chicago heading out of the NHL lockout into the 2005-06 season. Leighton was the starter with Chicago's AHL affiliate in Norfolk during the work stoppage, ahead of Craig Anderson.

Everything changed when Leighton needed stomach surgery in the offseason.

Chicago then signed free agent Nikolai Khabibulin to a 4-year, $27 million deal, making him the highest-paid goaltender in the NHL. And Leighton, who lost the backup job to a healthy Anderson, was traded to Buffalo on the eve of the regular season.

Part of the reason, from reports in Chicago papers, was that Leighton was incensed about not being awarded the backup job.

He has globetrotted the hockey world since then: signed by Anaheim in July 2006, claimed off waivers by Nashville in November 2006, claimed off waivers by the Flyers in January 2007, claimed off waivers by Montreal in February 2007, traded to Carolina in June 2007, claimed off waivers by the Flyers in December 2009.

"I had surgery that offseason and I wasn't able to train," Leighton explained. "My first time on the ice was 1 week before camp. And during camp, I just didn't feel good the whole time. It was just a thing where I really wanted to make the team."

Does Leighton think he learned anything from that experience?

"Not really," he said. "I was fighting for a spot. I wanted to do well, and I didn't."

Leighton said it has not been difficult to stay patient while rehabbing his injury, despite the fact that Bobrovsky has run away with the starter's job with a 10-2-1 record, a 2.08 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.

With 10 wins in 13 starts, Bobrovsky is the fastest Flyers goalie to get to 10 wins since Bob Froese started the 1984-85 season with 10 wins in his first 13 appearances.

"The team is winning and 'Bob' is doing well," Leighton said. "There is really no need for me to rush back. For me, I want to continue my career. If I rush back and then get hurt again, it's definitely going to hurt me in the long run."

Boucher, too, has been here before. In 2002, he was dealt to Phoenix after an unhappy season as the Flyers' backup behind an insanely emotional Roman Cechmanek.

He returned to Philadelphia in 2008, more mature and happy to not only have a job but focused on being the consummate good teammate. And he has been more than a solid backup.

"I think in the past, I would have been obsessing over what could happen [with Leighton back]," Boucher said. "Things change so quickly. I have so much evidence to lead me in that direction. Plans don't always go a certain way. I just try and enjoy myself, I try not to put too much focus on what could happen."

In four starts this season, Boucher has a credible 2.26 goals-against average and .898 save percentage. It's too limited of a sample size to make any judgment.

When called upon, Boucher's depth on the bench is what saved the Flyers' season last year. He won the shootout on the final day of the regular season before outdueling Marty Brodeur in the first round. That can't be discounted or overlooked.

But the Flyers' current situation will be coming to a head - something none of the three goaltenders, nor Peter Laviolette or Paul Holmgren, have been begging to handle. Goaltending controversies bring undue stress into the locker room, especially for a team on such a roll.

The possibility does exist that Leighton, despite signing a 2-year, $1.55 million pact in the offseason, could be the odd-man out. His first action will mean everything.

Boucher has the leg up - not only because he is comfortable as a backup and has proven he can play well when called on - but because he has grown from his experiences.

"People have been telling me for years, 'You're going to be sent here or you're going to be demoted or traded here,' " Boucher said. "Whatever happens, happens."

Leighton has experienced the hardship of losing his spot, but was dealt largely because of the way he handled it. Five years later, he is in the same spot. How will he react?

Time will tell. At the very least, it will be interesting to see how the personalities play out - including a happy-go-lucky Russian who speaks hardly any English.

"I'm not really worried about the competition right now," Leighton said. "When I get back, and I get healthy, then we'll worry about that."

ON-ICE

STAT WATCH

1: Sergei Bobrovsky's first NHL point, an assist, on Saturday night. He has also held Florida and Carolina to one goal total heading into the third periods of the Flyers' last two blowout wins but has yet to notch his first NHL shutout.

4: Number of games for Andreas Nodl's point streak. He has three goals and three assists in nine games this season after five points in his first 48 career NHL games.

10: Kimmo Timonen's number of points in the last eight games, after not scoring any in the first nine games. Timonen is one of seven Flyers in double-digit scoring.

THE WEEK AHEAD

vs. Ottawa

Tonight, 7 o'clock

The Senators (9-7-1) have been jockeying with Montreal for first place in the Northeast Division, after last year's winner, Buffalo, has struggled to a 6-9-3 start. Daniel Alfredsson leads Ottawa with seven goals and eight assists in 17 games, but four others are in double-digit scoring.

at Montreal

Tomorrow, 7 o'clock

This is the back end of the Flyers' third set of back-to-back games this season, this time against the Northeast Division-leading Canadiens (11-5-1) at the Bell Centre. Montreal has tonight off. It's the Flyers' first matchup with the Canadiens since dispatching them in five games in the Eastern Conference finals last year.

vs. Tampa Bay

Thursday, 7 o'clock

Tampa Bay will return to the Wells Fargo Center likely without Simon Gagne, who has been out indefinitely with a neck injury suffered on Oct. 21. Gagne had no points in his first six games. The Lightning (8-6-2) has been one of the NHL's pleasant surprises this season but is just 4-5-2 in the last 10 games.

at Washington

Saturday, 7 o'clock

The Flyers will make their second trip to Washington in 2 weeks. Mike Green scored a power-play goal in overtime on Nov. 7 to give the Capitals a 3-2 win. The Flyers trail Washington by three points for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

PHANTOMS PHILE

Ian Laperriere made a surprise visit to Adirondack last week to give advice to the Phantoms' eight rookies ... The Phantoms snapped their 10-game losing streak on Friday with new interim coach John Paddock behind the bench ... Atlanta Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley watched all three games in Adirondack this weekend, possibly to scout goaltender Johan Backlund.

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