Over a week has passed since Michael Leighton was able to return at the earliest, but he's about to return this weekend. While the Phantoms play on the road, Leighton will be their starting goaltender. With the way the Phantoms have played this year - three wins in 23 tries - the numbers are not what is important in evaluating whether Leighton is ready to return or not.
Instead, how Leighton looks and feels will be the important part. No matter how you feel about Leighton as a goalie or how he handled his injury (let alone his contract), a decision will have to be made regarding the Flyers' lineup. With the way they've played so far this year, it will be tough to lose anybody, as they have gotten contributions from almost every single player.
But right now, the Flyers are spending more than $4,000 a day over the salary cap (which equals $757,206 over the cap by the end of the year) on 25 players. One of those twenty-five is Michael Leighton, who is on Long-term Injured Reserve. LTIR allows the Flyers a cushion to go over the cap, in order to afford his replacement, Sergei Bobrovsky.
In addition, both Matt Walker and Ian Laperriere are on injured reserve - different from LTIR - which allows the Flyers to satisfy the 23-man roster limit. But when Leighton returns, the Flyers will be forced to make a move. Right now, they can carry Leighton as a third-goalie and still fit under the 23 man roster - with Dan Carcillo and Oskars Bartulis as the other healthy scratches - but they cannot get under the salary cap without the LTIR cushion or shedding salary.
When you factor in that the Flyers are already utilizing the bonus cushion - which allows a team to ignore potential bonuses earned by players, giving them the option of paying those bonuses the following year - salary cap space is crucial. With potential bonuses to Sean O`Donnell, James van Riemsdyk, Andreas Nodl, and Bobrovsky totaling upwards of $1.9 million at the end of the year, the Flyers would much prefer some wiggle room to avoid paying those bonuses next season.
The options for the Flyers are many, and have been discussed by a variety of people. Most originally dealt with losing one of the three goalies, but with the way Bobrovsky has played, he is unlikely to leave. That left one spot for Brian Boucher and Leighton to fight over, but that doesn't have to be the only solution.
Instead of going with either a rookie and a career backup or a rookie and a career backup fresh off back surgery, the Flyers could easily carry all three, at least until they get a better understanding of Bobrovsky's ability to withstand the rigors of the season and Leighton's progress in recovering from surgery. In addition, if they waive one of Boucher or Leighton and they have an injury at the NHL level, they will be forced to put the goalie they waived through re-entry waivers, available to any team at half price. If they get claimed, the Flyers would then have to risk losing Johan Backlund through reentry waivers as well, or call up Brian Stewart.
The likelihood of losing two goalies on waivers in one season is slim, but it's a possibility the Flyers have surely recognized. With Backlund spraining his ankle last week, losing Boucher on waivers and having Leighton re-aggravate his injury in the meantime would not at all be optimal. We could go further into the troubles of re-entry, but that's just speculation. Instead, the Flyers should carry three goaltenders until they can either find a trading partner or one of them gets injured.
In order to do that, there is a really simple solution: waive injured defenseman Matt Walker. Walker has not played a single game for the Flyers since being acquired in the summer, and yet he costs the team $9,140 a day against the salary cap. That's as much as the Flyers are paying Dan Carcillo and Oskars Bartulis combined to be reserves.
Even though Walker is injured, he can still be waived according to the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement (Article 13.6), so long as he sustained his injury in training camp. If Walker is waived, the Flyers would then be over $5,000 below the daily cap limit, putting them on pace to be over $640,000 under the yearly cap. That's still not enough to cover all the potential bonuses, but it gives them room.
And it's not as if the Flyers need Walker to maintain their defensive depth. The recent addition of Danny Syvret gives the Flyers another capable defensemen to fill in should the need arise, in addition to Bartulis, Erik Gustafsson, Marc-Andre Bourdon, Kevin Marshall, and Joonas Lehtivuori. When the most expensive of that bunch costs $900,000, and you're worried about the 8th defenseman on the depth chart, what exactly does Matt Walker do to warrant nearly double the salary of a player who likely won't play?
When the choice is between removing a goaltender who has contributed to the team's success either this year or last year, or removing a player who has never once played a regular season game for the Flyers, how much of a choice is it actually? And when it removes the burden of using the LTIR cushion - which Paul Holmgren has said he wishes to avoid - placing any player not named Matt Walker on waivers would be foolish.