Let me say this loud and clear: David Leggio is an NHL-caliber goalie.
It has never been more obvious than on Wednesday night when Leggio shutout the Eastern Conference's best team the Syracuse Crunch 1-0 despite his club being outshot 38-14. His performance was so impressive, all three media voters for the night's Three Stars wrote “Leggio, Leggio, Leggio.” True story.
When the stars were announced and he was given No. 1, the entire crowd stood and cheered his name.
Despite the ups and downs of this season – through the lockout, call-ups, injuries (the Amerks played without their No. 1 defenseman Brayden McNabb on Wednesday) and a coaching change, he has been the runaway MVP.
Leggio was last year's Team MVP, too. But he's been even improved this season. Like, to an NHL level.
“He was good last year, but to me he's a lot better this year,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said after the win. “Last year there were some issues with the point shots, but he finds point shots so much better now than he did last year. He controls his rebounds better, he keeps the game in front of him and I think he's a lot more patient.”
The Amerks' goalie said he's worked with the team's goaltending coach on finding those long shots.
“It was a process,” Leggio said. “I stay bigger and try to look over traffic rather than through or around. I think over the last two years it's the biggest improvement I've made in my game. It's a big reason why I've been able to have some success this year.”
During his Team MVP season, Leggio won 28 games and finished with a solid .917 save percentage. This season, the improvements Cassidy talked about have shown up on the stat sheet. The 28-year-old goalie has played 55 of the Amerks' 65 games and gained points in 41 of those games. Leggio's save percentage has raised to .923 in spite of the absurd workload.
A recent study showed that it takes between 4,000 and 5,000 shots faced to determine whether a goaltender's save percentage truly indicates his talent level. Leggio has faced 4,618 during the last three seasons with the Sabres' organization and has a save percentage of .918 – which is well above the league average around .910.
Goalies often take a long time to be ready for the NHL. They aren't like skaters who can be thrown to the NHL wolves at age 20. Ryan Miller, for example, wasn't a full-time NHL goalie until age 25. Tim Thomas was famously in his 30s. Goaltending takes mental, physical and technical training that often takes a more mature body and mind to be prepared for the highest level.
Leggio, a Buffalo native, has gone through a lot to get to the point of being ready. But he's there now. He's ready.
“One thing I've noticed is that he doesn't let bad games or bad goals frustrate him,” said defenseman Alex Biega, who played against Leggio in college and has been his teammate for three years. “In the past, he's had a temper. I think he's really cooled that down. The poise through it all has really benefited him.”
The Amerks' netminder has taken the Tim Thomas route to become a No. 1 in the American Hockey League. He was undrafted and barely recruited to Clarkson – he eventually took the No. 1 spot and led his team to 24 and 22-win seasons. Leggio played in Finland, where he beat out current Bruins backup goalie Anton Khudobin for a starting spot and won a championship. And last year, he was slated as the No. 2 until he beat out veteran Drew MacIntyre for the No. 1 job and willed his team to the playoffs.
Noticing a trend?
Leggio has a few things working against him – first being his size. He looks nothing like Ryan Miller. He's 6-foot-0, 185-pounds, not 6-foot-5 as is the mold these days. The Buffalo native also doesn't have the pedigree or hype that a top draft pick would carry with him.
So he's battled to gain attention. Cassidy said his netminder's competitiveness is “second to none.” For a goaltender – and even many hockey players – there's no more important part of a player's makeup than competitiveness.
“After every pregame skate, we line up and take breakaways and shooting,” Biega said. “If Leggio's just having a bad day or he doesn't think that he's sharp, he gets the game face on and gives it to guys. When that happens, we know he's going to have a great game.”
Now with rumors that Ryan Miller could be on the trading block, Leggio may soon get a chance to prove he belongs in The Show.
Has he been distracted by the situation in Buffalo? Uh, no. A stat that comes via D&C beat writer Kevin Oklubzija: since Dec. 28 he's 21-12 with and a .940 save percentage
It's become clear statistically and visually that Leggio can play in the NHL. Whether he gets a shot this year or next or the next, he'll have earned it with his play in Rochester. And if he doesn't end up getting a chance this season, good for the Amerks. They sit in fifth place in the West after the 1-0 win. So having him in net will give them a shot at winning the Calder Cup.
Brayden McNabb is expected to miss a month with a lower body injury.
Zemgus Girgensons had a beautiful backhand pass to set up a Rick Schofield goal. Girgensons has been playing well on top lines. He's still a ways away from being NHL ready, but he's showing more signs
Jarome Gauthier-Leduc is still struggling to adapt. His decision making and vision in his own end is costing the Amerks. He probably wouldn't be in the lineup if not for injuries. However, it's way too early to give up on him.
Adam Pardy would be a really interesting option for another NHL team with a need on the blueline. It wouldn't be a shock to see him get some consideration at the trade deadline. It would really kill the Amerks, though.