It’s amazing how many times Michael Leighton’s name comes up when the question isn’t about him. It happened again in the locker room after Saturday’s win in Albany.
Matt Ford was answering a question about something else entirely, and in mid-stream, he changed course and said:
“It all starts with Leights.”
It usually ends there, too. And that’s why Michael Leighton is my pick for the Phantoms 2011-12 Most Valuable Player.
Leighton’s numbers are strong. They show his constancy.
He leads all AHL goaltenders in games played and is second in minutes and total saves. His 27 wins are third in the league.
Leighton has again been best in crunch time.
He’s made 10 straight starts as the Phantoms chase the final playoff position. Since Feb. 24, he’s started 19 of 22 games.
But this isn’t completely a statistical pick.
I don’t usually put a ton of stock in intangibles that can’t be measured. But there’s no question Leighton gives this still-young team a psychological boost when he’s in the net.
They’re very aware of his status as one of the league’s best players of all-time at his position. His recent Stanley Cup run adds to his credibility.
Which is why his teammates bring him up time and again when asked to explain their success.
Other teams notice, too.
In a league with a lot of transient personnel, when you talk about an opposing player, there are usually a lot of generalities.
Things like: Their goaltender made a nice play on me. Or: Their goalie came up big.
With Leighton, everyone knows who he is. He has a presence.
Just last weekend, opposing goalie David Leggio of Rochester said:
“When you play against a quality goaltender like he is, you just know that you can’t give up a soft one or anything because he’s not going to.”
As has been oft pointed out, Leighton deserves credit for the class he’s handled himself with over the past two seasons. Given every reason to sulk at his demotion, he’s been a team leader and backslapper-in-chief.
There are other good candidates for the award.
Last year’s MVP Ben Holmstrom continues to do more than his share of dirty work that doesn’t show up in the gamesheet. There’s no one more willing to stand up for his teammates, and that grit came to define his captaincy this year.
Ford has been a revelation. He has 28 points in 28 games since his February trade and has been the Phantoms’ best all-around forward.
Jason Akeson has shown preternatural skill and hockey sense for a rookie.
Denis Hamel continues to score at a pace that defies his age.
But Leighton is the one guy they couldn’t replace. He’s the foundation the rest is built on. And if that doesn’t define most valuable, what does?
Tim McManus covers the Adirondack Phantoms. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter (@PSPhantoms) and read his daily updates on the Phantoms Forum blog online.