One of the few veteran goalies left on the free agent market has found a landing spot, as Michael Leighton has agreed to terms with the Carolina Hurricanes, the team announced. The 35-year-old returns to Raleigh for a second stint with the Canes, after spending parts of three seasons with the team from 2007 to 2010. His new deal is for just one year and is a two-way contract, paying him $700K at the NHL level.
As implied with the two-way stipulation, Leighton is likely to spend a significant portion of the 2016-17 season at the AHL level with Carolina’s affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers. Having re-signed Cam Ward this summer to go along with Eddie Lack, the rebuilding Hurricanes perhaps have no greater depth than at goalie. However, another experienced keeper at a cheap price tag has never hurt anyone before, and Leighton will provide welcome veteran guidance and knowledge to two top-end Carolina goalie prospects: returning Checkers goalie Daniel Altshuller and 2014 second-round pick and impending rookie Alex Nedeljkovic.
Should Leighton be called upon to play in the NHL this season, he will certainly bring a long career’s worth of experience with him. The all-time leader in AHL shutouts, as well as ninth in wins, the majority of the journeyman’s pro hockey days have been spent in the minors. A sixth-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 1999, Leighton made his pro debut with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals in 2001-2002, before getting a few games in with the NHL squad the next season. In 2003-04, Leighton actually led the Blackhawks in appearances in net, splitting time with the likes of Craig Anderson and Jocelyn Thibault. However, he was outplayed by the pair and found himself back in the AHL for part of the season as well. The Hawks traded him to the Buffalo Sabres prior to the 2005-06 season, though he never played for the team. He did not see NHL action again until 2006-07, in which he played one game for the Nashville Predators and five for the Philadelphia Flyers, after a mid-season waiver claim. He was put on waivers yet again that season, and ended up in Montreal, another team with which he never got into a game.
Carolina traded for Leighton at the 2007 NHL draft, hoping to add some depth behind their young, breakout goalie Ward. Unable to challenge veteran backups like John Grahame and Manny Legace, nevertheless steal starts from Ward, Leighton played in just 29 games with the Hurricanes in three seasons. He was claimed by the Flyers in 2009, joining the team for the second time, and found his first real taste of NHL success. If not for his early season struggles as backup in Carolina, Leighton would have posted a career-high .918 save percentage and 2.48 goals against average in 27 games with Philadelphia. However, the 2010 emergence of Sergei Bobrovsky forced Leighton back down to the AHL. He stayed with the Flyers organization, but only played in two NHL games in the next three years, before being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets as part of the deal for Steve Mason, where ironically he was again blocked from NHL play time by Bobrovsky. After a year overseas in the KHL, Leighton returned to North America on a two-way deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that drafted him, in 2014-15. He made the first (and only) start of his second stint with the team this past April, allowing just one goal after relieving Scott Darling in a rout by the Dallas Stars.
While Leighton’s NHL career isn’t exactly Hall of Fame-caliber, he has been unbelievably successful and consistent in the AHL and KHL. If called upon by the Hurricanes, he is a reliable veteran choice, and if not, he will be a value signing simply by what he will be able to impart on Carolina’s future net minders.