There usually aren't a lot of opportunities for a 35 year-old goaltender at the AHL level where youth is certainly prioritized since the expected path for young players is AHL to NHL. However, when a goaltender of Leighton's abilities is still available on the market and a goaltending roster spot is open, you'd expect that most teams would jump before September 10 to sign the veteran. Charlotte will benefit from Carolina's contract with Leighton.
Take a look at these numbers. Leighton posted a 28-8-8 record, a 2.44 GAA, and a .918 save percentage in 46 games with the Rockford IceHogs last season where he was named to the AHL All-Star team, backstopped the Central Division to victory at the AHL All-Star Challenge, hit the 200-win mark for his AHL career, and was named the recipient of the AHL's 2015-16 President's Award for his outstanding accomplishments during the season.
Oh yeah, he also Johnny Bower's AHL record for shutouts with his 46th of his career in a shutout victory over Lake Erie on March 5. That record had stood for some six decades before Leighton snapped it with the blank scoresheet. Not a bad little season at the age of 34, right?
Leighton will most likely pair with Daniel Altshuller as the tandem in Charlotte this season, but Anthony Peters should push both men in training camp. I expect Alex Nedeljkovic to start in the ECHL with the Florida Everblades as he's fresh out of the OHL, but anything can happen yet. In any case, Altshuller went 10-10-5 in his 28 games last season with Charlotte while posting a 2.81 GAA, a .905 save percentage, and one shutout. Peters played a single game with the Checkers where he was on the losing end of the scoreboard, posting a 5.00 GAA and a .898 save percentage. I have a feeling he'll want to improve those career AHL numbers.
As you can see, the goaltending ranks in Charlotte were a little thin last season which contributed to their 36-32-8 record and no playoffs in the spring. Leighton alone accounted for 28 wins, and was responsible for 28 of 43 wins that the IceHogs posted. Needless to say, he'll be counted on to stabilize the Checkers' crease and help them into the playoffs with his abilities as long as the Hurricanes don't need him long-term. His five shutouts were also four better than all of the Checkers netminders combined, so saying Leighton is an upgrade is elementary.
Leighton, in joining the Hurricanes, will get another shot at an NHL job at the Carolina training camp, but he'll be able to add to his career totals which should give him a shot at the Hockey Hall of Fame. He's currently ninth in AHL history with 221 victories, four wins back of former Checker Drew MacIntyre and 12 wins short of surpassing fifth-place Frederic Cassivi. While Johnny Bower, Marcel Paille, and Gil Mayer might be out of reach before Leighton retires, he'll certainly be among the career leaders in all goaltending stats in the AHL once his career is done. That's a helluva career for a guy who seemingly lives out of a suitcase each and every season.
Ron Francis made the right decision for his club when he signed Michael Leighton to shore up his goaltending needs. I have a feeling that Michael Leighton will be worth every cent that Francis wrote into his contract.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!