Friday, 29 January 2016

Standing Alongside Legends

While the title may lead you to believe that this article could be about the NHL All-Stars, it assuredly is not. The player we'll look at today has, however, done a number of impressive things in the NHL - led his team to the Stanley Cup Finals, became the first Blackhawk to record a shutout in his debut, played in a Winter Classic - but has been a career journeyman in the NHL if you look at his moves. He's been an outstanding contributor has been in the AHL, and goaltender Michael Leighton is now standing alongside one the all-time greatest goaltenders in tying him for career AHL shutouts. He does have other AHL records to his name, but Michael Leighton is on the verge of adding his name to the select few in the AHL who have dominated the league like no others.

With a 6-0 victory over the Chicago Wolves tonight, Rockford Icehogs netminder Michael Leighton's 20-save shutout was his 45th blank sheet of his career, tying him with Hockey Hall of Fame netminder Johnny Bower for most-ever in the American Hockey League. The 34 year-old netminder is an incredible 23-4-4 on the season with a 2.01 GAA and a .932 save percentage, and has the IceHogs at the top of the Central Division standings with a 27-10-6 record for 60 points. He's been named to the AHL All-Star Game in Syracuse, New York next weekend which is fitting since he's among the best at his position this season.

What makes Leighton's achievement so special is that he's reached the 45-shutout mark in 428 career AHL games whereas Bower set his mark in 592 games. Leighton owns a career 216-161-37 record for a .566 winning percentage. Bower, on the other hand, has a 359-174-57 record for a .657 winning percentage - a better career mark for sure - so if we're making straight comparisons, Leighton has a little work to do to catch Bower's success. But the fact that he reached the shutout mark in 164 fewer games says a lot about Leighton's ability in relation to some of the teams he's played on in his time in the AHL.

We also need to factor in some other impressive marks that Leighton has made in the American circuit. He as named to the AHL All-Rookie Team in 2001-02, he's 10th all-time on the AHL wins list right now, he set an AHL record making 98 saves on 101 shots in a playoff game that went to 5 an AHL-record overtime periods, and he owns the record for the lowest goals-against average in a single playoff year at 1.18 GAA in 2008. He also was named as the winner of the Baz Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL's outstanding goaltender in 2007-08. Leighton has, for all intents and purposes, written his name into AHL stone as one of the best to have ever played in the American League.

Gerry Cheevers holds the record for most wins in one season when he went 48-21-3 in 1964-65 with the Rochester Americans. Rockford has played 43 games already this season, so Leighton would have to win 22 of the remaining 37 games the IceHogs have left. Considering he's 23 of 31 already on this season, it's not unfathomable to think that Michael Leighton could knock that record off as well. Leighton has five shutouts this season, so Jason LaBarbera's record of 13 shutouts in one season set with the Hartford Wolfpack in 2003-04 is a little further out of reach, but still possible.

It's in this realization that Leighton is going to eclipse Bower's shared shutout mark at some point - most likely this season - and is staring down a number of other single-season records that has me wondering about what it would take for a man whose greatest achievements came outside the NHL to make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Could this be possible that Michael Leighton could be included on the Hockey Hall of Fame's ballot once he decides to hang up the skates for all that he did in the AHL?

So there's your question, readers: should Michael Leighton be voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame for establishing himself as one of the best goaltenders in AHL history? Have your say in the comments, folks. This should open up a good debate about the relevance of statistics, the NHL, and the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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