With the Chicago Blackhawks’ surprise signing of goaltender Michael Leighton on Monday, the question was put to bed almost as soon as it was asked: would the 33-year old return to the NHL level with the team that originally drafted him, and play alongside the players that denied him a Stanley Cup ring back in 2010?
As it stands, that answer is a firm no. Corey Crawford will remain the teams’ starting goaltender, and with Antti Raanta fresh of signing a new contract of his own, it seems the tandem that spent much of the 2013-14 season together will remain for the coming year.
If all goes according to plan at Blackhawks’ training camp (which starts in exactly one month), Leighton will head down the road to play with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks’ top affiliate, and become their starting goaltender. The Blackhawks will have some veteran presence in the organization, and if Raanta or Crawford go down with injury, Leighton will be able to answer the call.
However, the story does not end there. The IceHogs have missed the Calder Cup Playoffs for the past four seasons, and went down especially hard in 2014, after holding a playoff seed for the majority of the year. Through a mill of starting goaltenders that included Mac Carruth, Allen York, Jason LaBarbera, Kent Simpson, and Raanta, the IceHogs simply couldn’t develop any consistency, and finished their season early.
With LaBarbera off to Anaheim via free-agent signing this summer, there was a void to fill in the organization’s depth chart, although some may not have realized with the signings of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Brad Richards demanding the attention of Blackhawks’ fans for the first month of the off-season.
If anyone could get the IceHogs back into the post-season, it would be Leighton; he holds the AHL Record for most saves in a playoff game (98), as well as Goals Against Average in a post-season (1.18). He is 17th all-time in Wins, and his 36 shutouts have him tied for fourth all-time in AHL history.
Leighton is another NHL-ready player set to play for the IceHogs this season, with Teuvo Teravainen likely to stay at the AHL level, among others such as Stephen Johns and Adam Clendening. In a division where most teams will be calling up their standout prospects, the IceHogs certainly have a good shot at the Calder Cup Playoffs this year.
If that goal is reached, another achievement is just one game away; earn the IceHogs’ first playoff win since 2007. If they can do that, and manage three more, they will tie the 2007 team for the franchise’s longest playoff run.
The Rock River Valley has run dry over the last four years with the absence of playoff hockey, but with another strong addition in a key position, the Rockford IceHogs look poised to join their parent club as a playoff team in the 2014-15 season.
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