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Friday, January 15, 2010
Boucher the odd-man out in crowded Flyers crease

By Pierre LeBrun

TORONTO -- A young fan in a Flyers jersey waited patiently near the visitors' dressing room at Air Canada Centre. When Brian Boucher finally got off the ice after doing some extra work Thursday, you wouldn't have known this was a guy getting squeezed out in a three-goalie jam.

But with a smile as earnest as can be, Boucher signed an autograph and took a picture with the kid. Sure, things are tough on the job right now, but why take it out on the poor kid (although I know a few athletes who certainly would have)?

Life is not a bowl of cherries for Boucher, who is the odd-man out behind Michael Leighton and Ray Emery in a crowded Flyers crease.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about it, but as a veteran of the game, I know lots of things happen in this game," Boucher told me later as we sat in the visitors' dressing room. "You have to stay patient, work hard, and stay as positive as possible."

This is the thing about NHL goalies -- there's only 60 jobs in the best hockey league in the world. Holding on to one is a feat in itself.

When Boucher signed a two-year, $1.85 million deal last summer, his second tour of duty with the Flyers was good opportunity: provide quality backup netminding to Emery, who was coming back to the NHL after a one-year stint in Russia. And I'm guessing, in the back of his mind, Boucher also figured he might get a solid chance at some point given the demands on starting goalies in Philly and Emery's roller-coaster career.

As it turns out, Emery played well out of the gates. Then, when Emery went down with an injury, finally giving Boucher his chance, the 33-year-old suffered an injury in a game Dec. 21.

"It is what it is, I got some bad luck there," said Boucher. "I got hurt, injured my finger in a game. The next game, we started the winning streak. [Flyers GM] Paul Holmgren had a meeting with the team and it seemed to turn things around for us. We've been good ever since. Unfortunately for myself, I haven't really been a part of it. But more importantly for the team, it's been a great turnaround and got us back in the thick of things."

You don't hear Boucher complain. He puts the team first and fully understands why the team has continued to ride the red-hot Leighton.

"Absolutely," said Boucher. "And you know, we didn't have a 20-point cushion, we didn't have the luxury of working people back in. It was what it was. He was the guy on the spot who got the opportunity and he's made the most of it. If you're the other guy on the outside, you just have to wait patiently. If you play well when you get back in, then you can make the case for yourself."

The 28-year-old Leighton is some kind of story right now (he wouldn't talk to me Thursday because it was a game day.) Will the bubble burst soon? His career numbers aren't grand, so you wonder how long he can keep it up. Then again, Tim Thomas and Craig Anderson were also journeyman goalies who, like Leighton, were once put on NHL waivers. Look at them now.

"He was given an opportunity that he probably hasn't been given in a while, to start games on a regular basis," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said of Leighton. "He backed up Cam [Ward] in Carolina and usually caught the seventh game in 11 nights, and it was usually a back-to-back game on the road with a tired team in front of him. So this was his first opportunity and he's done a really good job of giving us what we need in net in order to win hockey games."

Let's be honest here, the Flyers got a bit lucky. Leighton actually cleared NHL waivers the first time around before the Hurricanes put him back on re-entry waivers a few days later, and the Flyers taking him at half the price. One of the hottest goalies in the NHL is costing the Flyers about $185,000 pro-rated for the season.

"We were between a rock and hard place with two goalies injured," said Laviolette.

So what now? Three goalies is never a good thing on an active NHL roster. Just running a practice with three goalies is cumbersome, not to mention the roster space dedicated to a guy who's not playing. Boucher could very well be put on waivers at some point and then sent down to the AHL; but so far, he's sticking with the big club.

"I don't know how it's going to play out," said Boucher, who was a solid backup to Evgeni Nabokov in San Jose. "The only thing that's been said to me is to work hard and stay positive. That's all you can do. Things can change dramatically. Things could change any day.

"I've been in three-goalie situations before in Phoenix and Chicago. They have a way of working themselves out, and usually on their own. Just control what you can control and don't worry about anything else."

This isn't a goalie controversy yet. But just wait. It is Philly after all.