WILKES-BARRE — Even though Michael Leighton spent the last few weeks soaking up the warm sun in Tuscon, Ariz., he didn’t mind leaving the warm climate for the chilly winter temperatures of Pennsylvania.
The 36-year old veteran netminder was traded for a second time this season when the Arizona organization sent him to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Tuesday. Leighton signed with the Tampa Bay organization last off-season, appeared in nine games for the club’s AHL-affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, was then traded to Arizona and appeared in a couple games for the Chicago Wolves before he was recalled to the Coyotes on Dec. 11.
But Leighton never played and it was clear he wasn’t in Arizona’s plans.
That won’t be the case with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as he forms a tandem with Casey DeSmith in net.
“Going to Arizona wasn’t really ideal for me. They had three goaltenders in the minors and two in the NHL. They were looking to trade me the whole time,” Leighton said after Wednesday practice, his first with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “I was kind of sitting around and not playing. I’m happy to get an opportunity here with a great organization.”
Now in his 17th pro season, Leighton is no stranger to the Mohegan Sun Arena. He faced the Penguins as an opponent with five different teams, posting a record of 15-12-1-1. He is a five-time AHL All-Star and is also the career leader in shutouts with 50.
Six of those shutouts have come against the Penguins, and Leighton said the Mohegan Sun Arena is a place where’s he’s comfortable.
“I always felt like I had some good games in this rink,” he said. “You have good crowds, good ice, good lighting. There’s just a good atmosphere in this building and I always enjoyed playing here.”
Most of Leighton’s success against the Penguins occurred early in his career as a member of the Norfolk Admirals, where he played from 2001 to 2005. He remembers the physical battles between the two teams as much as his own personal success.
“We had a couple of line brawls. Me and (former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goaltender) Sebastien Caron squared off at center ice in this building. We didn’t end up fighting because the refs jumped in,” Leighton said. “With Norfolk, we had some good battles here.”
It’s no surprise that even though Leighton is new to the Penguins, he’s a familiar face to several players. He was teammates with Tom Sestito in Adirondack and Ryan Haggerty in Rockford, in addition to Tom Kostopoulos when the two played for the Carolina Hurricanes in the NHL.
That familiarity eases the transition to a new team, Leighton said.
“It’s difficult coming in meeting 25 new guys,” he said.
After joining four teams prior to the Penguins, and appearing in games sparingly, Leighton is excited to get his game back on track and have some stability with the Penguins.
“I need to get back on the ice. It’s been a while,” he said. “I got some games in Chicago, felt good, then I was let go and sitting around for a couple weeks. Hopefully this week I’ll get back in shape and get back in net.”
Head coach Clark Donatelli said it’s possible that Leighton could play in one of two games this weekend but he has yet to determine how the goaltending duties will shake out.
“He’s a presence in the net. A veteran guy with a calm demeanor,” Donatelli said. “He can help Casey. There’s a lot of positives to having him around.”
Thomas still pursuing Olympic dream
Christian Thomas was named to the Hockey Canada roster for the 2017 Spengler Cup, which begins on Dec. 26. The event, which is held in Switzerland, is the final pre-Olympic tournament for Hockey Canada to evaluate players that will represent the country at PyeongChang 2018. Players participated in a total of four tournaments, and Thomas has been invited to each one.
It will mark the second time this season that the Penguins granted Thomas permission to miss a few games while he participates in tournaments.
“The Pittsburgh organization has been awesome letting me play these tournaments. It’s unfortunate I have to miss some games here, but I’m excited to go,” he said. “Hopefully it’s enough to earn me a spot.”