On the Michael Leighton Signing

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Kris Versteeg scores a goal against Philadelphia Flyers goalie Michael Leighton (L) during the second period of their NHL pre-season hockey game in Toronto September 24, 2010.   REUTERS/ Mike Cassese  (CANADA - Tags: SPORT ICE HOCKEY IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Every off-season there is more than one candidate for “worst contract signed”. The math is usually pretty simple – the largest price tag for the smallest concurrent value. Typically the winner is a needlessly large, long-term deal given to a player whose value has somehow been inflated by a club’s need or via some idiosyncrasy of the free agent market.

The early contender for “worst decision” this year is relatively cheap and short-term however: the two year, $1.55M Leighton contract by the Flyers GM Paul Holmgren. It’s a salary that won’t knee-cap the organization forever and is certainly easily buried should he prove inadequate, so the financial ramifications for Philadelphia will be minimal if things don’t turn out.

That said, in the context of the market and the Flyers needs, the Leighton signing was a demonstrably awful move.

Let’s first establish two things: Michael Leighton is little more than an average NHL goaltender and his noteworthy results from last season were a fluke. The 29 year-old journeyman has appeared in 103 games over the course of his career, managing an uninspiring .902 save rate. I haven’t done the requisite math to be sure of this, but that strikes me as little more than replacement level performance.

Last year, Leighton was plucked off of waivers by a desperate Flyers team hobbled by injuries in the crease and he managed an uncharacteristic .918 SV% in 27 games for them down the stretch. Now, there’s a couple of things here – first, 27 games is a pathetically small sample size by which to judge a goaltender. In addition, while a .918 SV% is better than Leighton’s career average, it’s hardly knocking the ball out of the park over such a short span.

If we unpack his overall 2009-10 save rate, the news becomes even worse for Holmgren. Leighton’s even strength save percentage last year was a below-average .904 (that’s Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers and Vesa Toskala territory). The only reason he managed a somewhat noteworthy save rate was an inhumanly good .906 SV% on the PK. That’s right – Leighton saved pucks at a greater rate while his team was short-handed last year. And yes, there’s no way that can continue.

So we have a completely mediocre goalie manage okay, but clearly fortune driven results over a short period of time. Not a good UFA target, particularly in a market that was littered with better options. The Flyers re-signed Leighton on June 30th, a day before guys like Marty Turco, Jose Theodore, Dan Ellis, Chris Mason and Antero Niittymaki started accepting offers. There isn’t any world beaters in that list, but they all have a better track record than Leighton. What’s more they all signed within range of his cap hit (Niittymaki was the most expensive at $2 million).

What makes this all the more ridiculous is not just Leighton’s on-going back issues, but the fact that the Flyers aren’t exactly bursting at the seams with other options. Besides the doddering Brian Boucher, the franchise features a bevy of unproven prospects, including current starter Sergei Bobrovsky. The 22 year-old has looked competent through pre-season and the first couple of regular season games and may actually turn out to be something of savior for the organization if he can continue to shine. If so, then it’s by the graces of fortune – and not Holmgren’s lackluster decision making – that the club will have a competent goaltender this season.

So what caused Holmgren to stick with Leighton? I can only assume the move was primarily motivated by the fact that the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup finals, with Leighton (mostly) in net. As unsophisticated as it might seem, even NHL GM’s are swayed by ostensible correlations that are more illusory than causal. So Leighton = Stanley Cup run = new contract(!), despite the fact that all sorts of other things went into the Flyers finals appearance.

As mentioned, the contract isn’t overly pricey and the emergence of Bobrovsky may save Holmgren from himself. That said, it was a terrible bet to make, particularly for a franchise that has a long, storied history of signing the wrong goaltender.