The 2010 preseason had been filled with good news for the Philadelphia Flyers.
The potential addition of Bill Guerin created dreams of a top-nine forward corps filled with potential 20-goal scorers.
Solid performances from rookies like Sergei Bobrovsky, Ben Holmstrom, and Mike Testwuide helped build excitement for the future.
The rapid recoveries of Blair Betts and Ville Leino from offseason surgeries, along with the lack of setbacks in the rehabilitation of star defenseman Chris Pronger, seemed to imply that the Flyers could have a fully healthy roster going into their opening night clash with the rival Pittsburgh Penguins on October 7.
Those hopes died Tuesday with the announcement that both starting goaltender Michael Leighton and fourth-line grinder Ian Laperriere would miss the start of the season due to injuries.
Leighton will miss at least the first month of the season with a bulging disc in his back, while Laperriere is out indefinitely with post-concussion syndrome from taking a puck to the face in the playoff series with the New Jersey Devils.
Any time a team loses their projected starting goalie, it is rightfully a top story. But despite the fact that the starting goalie is generally more valuable than a fourth-line winger, for the Flyers, losing Laperriere is likely more damaging than losing Leighton.
The Loss of Leighton
Considering that goaltenders need stellar lateral movement and also spend most of the game hunched over, a back injury for a goalie could be more problematic than for a forward or defenseman.
However, the Flyers can weather the loss of Leighton fairly easily.
The 29-year old goalie was a revelation for the Flyers last season, putting up a strong 0.918 save percentage and 2.48 GAA during a 27-game stint.
Leighton's overall save percentage in 2009-10, after taking into account his play with the Carolina Hurricanes, was much less impressive. His 0.905 percentage over a full season would have placed him behind such goaltending luminaries such as Johan Hedberg, Brian Elliott, and Antero Niittymaki.
Although he did have a very strong performance against the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference final (1.40 GAA, .950 save percentage), he followed with a disastrous performance in the Stanley Cup final (3.96, .880).
Essentially, Leighton is not a great goalie. Even after receiving tutelage from Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese, he was unable to truly make the jump to reliable starter.
The Flyers also have a backup goalie in Brian Boucher who is basically on the same level as Leighton.
While his statistics in '09-10 were dwarfed by Leighton, Boucher had the misfortune of receiving most of his starts when the Flyers were struggling both offensively and defensively.
When Leighton was in net, the Flyers scored 2.56 goals per 60 minutes during 5-on-5 play, according to the behindthenet.ca website. On the other hand, Boucher received only 1.71 goals in the same situations.
In addition, Boucher actually fared better than Leighton during 5-on-5 ice time from a purely statistical perspective. He relinquished 2.47 goals per 60 minutes during even-strength play, while Leighton allowed 2.97 goals.
Leighton's superior overall statistics were mainly a result of better play while the Flyers were shorthanded. Often, goals allowed while shorthanded cannot blamed on the goaltender.
Boucher's 9-18-3 record was a bit of an illusion. He's a much better goalie than his poor '09-10 regular season stats would portend.
His solid play in the postseason (2.47 GAA, .909 save percentage) helped to show that he is at least in the same goaltending class as Leighton.
After accounting for the Flyers' stellar defense, the dropoff from Leighton to Boucher should be minor, if nonexistent.
Lappy's Concussion and the Cost
It will be much more difficult for the Flyers to replace the contributions of Laperriere.
Lappy's play on the fourth line in 5-on-5 situations is not the issue. His 9 minutes, 34 seconds of even-strength ice time per game were valuable, but they ranked 11th among Flyers forwards who played at least 50 games.
Those minutes can be replaced. What will be more difficult to replace, on the other hand, is Laperriere's penalty-killing ice time.
Laperriere averaged 2:50 of shorthanded ice time per 60 minutes last season, trailing only Blair Betts on the team. Last season, Laperriere was a penalty killing specialist. As a result, his injury will cause problems that will reverberate throughout the roster.
Betts should be ready for the start of the regular season, as he was cleared for contact in practice on Monday.
However, the loss of Laperriere and the departure of two-way forward Simon Gagne via trade leaves a significant amount of PK minutes to replace.
Darroll Powe will likely be expected to replace Laperriere. He averaged only 1:09 of shorthanded ice time in '09-10 and 1:00 in '08-09, so expectations that Powe will simply slide into 2:50 minutes of PK time per game may be a bit optimistic.
The more probable scenario is that forwards such as Mike Richards, Claude Giroux, and Jeff Carter will have to spend more time on the penalty kill.
This was likely to occur anyway, with the loss of Simon Gagne and his 1:28 of PK ice time per game. But Laperriere's injury will force Richards, Giroux and Carter to spend even more time skating shorthanded.
In '08-09, Carter and Richards led all forwards in shorthanded ice time. They were both noticeably exhausted and banged up by the time that the Flyers entered the postseason, contributing to the team's six-game defeat against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The additions of Betts and Laperriere helped to prevent the same issue from re-occuring in '09-10. It surely helped Richards, in particular, to flourish during the team's Stanley Cup run.
Now the Flyers might have to push their top forwards to the limit again.
It would be preferable that players like Richards, Carter, and Giroux not have to expend too much energy killing penalties, as their offensive contributions are too valuable. But with Laperriere's injury, those forwards will be subject to the punishment and injury risk of significant shorthanded minutes.
The injuries to Leighton and Laperriere put a damper on what had been a relatively successful preseason for the Philadelphia Flyers.
While Leighton should be back at some point in 2010-11, Laperriere could be forced to retire as a result of his concussion-related symptoms.
Lappy's dedication and heart will be missed in the locker room. But his on-ice contributions are important as well and, in a sense, are irreplaceable.
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