VOORHEES, N.J. -- When Michael Leighton first came to the Philadelphia Flyers, he was a journeyman goaltender playing with his seventh organization since he turned pro in 2001.
A few months later, he's now a goalie who led a team to the Stanley Cup Final and has become the poster child for the NHL's inexpensive goaltender movement.
On Saturday, the first day of his first training camp with the Flyers, the only noticeable difference in Leighton from last spring was the lack of a thick playoff beard. But rather than talk about his rise in stature thanks to his tremendous regular season and playoff run -- not to mention the two-year contract he signed over the summer -- Leighton sounds more like a player still just hoping to make a team.
"I want to have the same mindset, I want to earn my spot," he said after the first day of on-ice workouts at Flyers Skate Zone. "You're starting the season and you want to do well and show what you can do."
He showed the hockey world what he was capable of last season. The Flyers claimed him on waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 15, and he started his first game Dec. 23. That night he made 31 saves to backstop the Flyers to a 5-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning -- and in the process started the Flyers on a 21-9-3 run over the next three months that saved their season.
Leighton went 16-5-2 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in 27 games with the Flyers, but his outstanding run came to a painful end March 16 when he sprained his ankle in a game against the Nashville Predators.
Brian Boucher was in goal when the Flyers won their last-day shootout against the New York Rangers to get into the playoffs, but when he sprained his knee in the second period of Game 5 of the second round against the Boston Bruins, Leighton -- on the first day he had been medically cleared to play -- again came to the rescue in a remarkable way. He finished off the shutout Boucher started, then won Games 6 and 7 as the Flyers became the first team in 30 years to win a playoff series after losing the first three games.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, he shut out the Montreal Canadiens three times in the first four games to propel the Flyers to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1997. He allowed the series-clinching goal to the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane in overtime of Game 6, but his playoff numbers were sensational. His 2.46 GAA and three shutouts were the best among all postseason goaltenders, and his .916 save percentage was second.
Leighton said he had a nice, relaxing summer, but rather than hide from what happened, he admits to watching some of the footage of the final series.
"I've watched some of the tape during the playoffs, and over the summer it was on NHL Network," he said. "It's done, it's over with. Not like I can change the result. Looking back at it, it's still pretty cool to see where we went and what we did. No sense just erasing that from your mind. You want to keep that in the back of your mind and keep it positive."
Despite the sour ending, Leighton's teammates were publicly very supportive and wanted him back.
Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco, the team gave Leighton a new, two-year contract on June 29 -- before he could reach the open market.
"It was nice for me that me and (Boucher) knew we would be here and they'd start the year with us," Leighton said. "That's better than them bringing in another guy. It gives you more confidence knowing the team has confidence in you."
Flyers captain Mike Richards was among those who spent his last day of last season pushing for Leighton's return, and was happy to see him when he got on the ice Saturday morning.
"I think it's nice having people you're comfortable with, having players around you you're confident in," he said. "Obviously this year we have higher expectations of him, but it's nice to have him back here -- nice to see a familiar face."
Leighton said it's very flattering to hear his teammates stumping for him, but also has been around long enough to know that jobs aren't won on popularity contests -- he has to earn it. he also feels like he has to prove to the hockey public that the Michael Leighton people saw last season is the real deal and not a one-season fluke.
"I want to continue on with what I did last year, continue to establish myself in this League," he said. "That starts with training camp and the preseason and works the way into the first few games.
"I'm hoping to build off last season's playoffs and the regular season and start a new one here."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com