When it comes to the role of the backup goalie, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock leaves no mystery in terms of what he demands from that position: support the starter, don’t be heard from and when you get the call to play from time-to-time, stop the puck and don’t make excuses, for Pete’s sake.
That’s what appears to be the objective for Michael Hutchinson.
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With training camp about to get underway next week, the 29-year-old returns as a prime candidate to fill the role behind Frederik Andersen, having signed a one-year, $700,000 contract on June 27. When he met informally with the media late last week, it was almost as if he had an audience of one in mind.
“It’s easy, you just have to be a good person, a good teammate and Freddie knows I support him 100 percent,” Hutchinson said when asked how he handles a secondary role. “It’s a team game, the main goal for every person in our room is winning a Stanley Cup so for me, you have to find a role within the team and that’s going to be supporting Freddie and being ready when my number is called.”
If Babcock heard those comments, he’d certainly have a smile on his face.
Bringing chemistry to the table
Toronto acquired the 6-3, 200-pound netminder from the Florida Panthers in December last season. Since then, he’s been focused on building up the strong relationship and dynamic that he shares with the Maple Leafs starter. So far, things have been going well for the two off the ice.
“Freddie was awesome to me when I was first called up and playing games,” Hutchinson said. “He came up to me right away in the room, it was comfortable right away talking to him. We’ve been texting back and forth all summer and got out to play a few rounds of golf too. It’s nice to build that kind of relationship where we feel completely comfortable right now. He’s one of the best goalies in the league and he’s fun to watch.”
The Barrie, Ont. native looked solid in five games for the Leafs last season, going 2-3-0 with a 2.64 GAA and .914 save percentage. In 111 career games, he’s 95-46-43 with a 2.70 GAA and .908 save percentage.
Despite looking decent in his trial run, and also being content with a backup role, he knows that No. 2 spot isn’t guaranteed; he still has to prove that he’s a reliable option between the pipes.
“Every single team in the NHL, you need two good goalies and realistically you need three good goalies in an organization,” said Hutchinson. “The number of teams that get through a season using just two goalies is very minimal, it doesn’t happen as often as it used to. You need to be able to win with either goalie in the net and the team has to have confidence in each goalie. I’m just going to come in, work hard in practice and try to earn the guys’ trust.”
Ready to ‘go with the flow’ and be reliable
“Try to earn the guys’ trust.”
That’s another one of those comments Babcock surely will love to hear, and it’s what likely held Garret Sparks back last season, especially after a questionable post-game interview following Toronto’s notorious 6-2 loss to the Senators in March. Sparks had allowed six goals on 44 shots in a 6-2 loss. It was also the fourth-straight game the Leafs had allowed five or more goals against. Long story short, Sparks wasn’t afraid to voice his frustration.
“We need more emotion, I’m an emotional player, I need more emotion, we need more emotion from everybody, we need people to get angry and to step up and to be mad and take it personally,” Sparks said following the game.
The right message. The wrong person to deliver it. It was the beginning of the end for Sparks, who was essentially cut from the team a week before Toronto’s 2019 playoff run to “refocus.”
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Unlike Sparks, veteran Hutchinson knows his role and is handling things with a straightforward approach; do what you’re asked with a smile on your face. Of course, doing that is easier said than done, and becoming more content is something that Hutchinson has gotten better at over time.
“The older you get, the easier that role becomes and the more you see that role, the more you are comfortable in it,” Hutchinson said. “Earlier on in my career, I maybe got too worked up playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road with travel and you haven’t played in two weeks. Now as you get older, you just let those things roll off and go with the flow and focus on what you can control which is giving your team a chance.”
That is what former backup Curtis McElhinney did exceptionally well during his full season as Toronto’s No. 2 in 2017-18, going 11-5-1 with a 2.14 GAA and a .934 save percentage. With the Leafs likely looking to cut down on Andersen’s workload this season after he started 60-plus games over the last three seasons, Babcock is going to need that type of performance from whomever the backup might be — whether that be Hutchinson or someone else.
‘It’s the NHL’: Preparing for competition
No role is guaranteed, as is the case for that spot behind Andersen this season. Hutchinson also has to compete with the likes of Michal Neuvirth, who Toronto brought in on a PTO in August.
The 31-year-old has gone 105-93-26 with a 2.71 GAA and .910 save percentage over 257 NHL games, but injuries over the last few seasons have caused him to struggle over time.
Hutchinson knows he’s in for a battle to become the full-time backup, but believes he has a leg up thanks to his tenure with Toronto llast season.
“It’s huge coming in having been here last year,” Hutchinson said. “You already know the guys, the players, and the training staff. There is that sense of familiarity and it goes a long way. Last year was my first year going to different organizations between Florida and here, it was kind of a whirlwind all at once and everything kind of blends together. Now I’m a little bit more relaxed and feel at home so that’s definitely a benefit.”
Not only that, but he’s not getting hung up on the potential for competition; it’s all just part of the business.
“No reaction, there’s always competition,” Hutchinson explained. “It’s the NHL, there’s competition from (prospects) Joseph Woll, Ian Scott, Kasimir Kaskisuo, it doesn’t matter who’s in camp, there’s always good goalies. There’s many goalies who can play in the NHL and everyone wants to play in the NHL. When they added Neuvirth, I didn’t think much of it. I feel confident in the work I’ve put in during the summer. I’m just coming in here looking to put my best foot forward and I’m looking forward to getting things started. Especially once you get back in the city and start skating again, you start getting the itch for training camp to start up and games to start up again.”
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