Mirtle: With Michael Hutchinson waived, Maple Leafs (reluctantly) turn to Kasimir Kaskisuo as adversity hits
By James Mirtle
Nov 11, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
This is not all Michael Hutchinson’s fault.
He didn’t play well, but you can argue the Maple Leafs were even worse in front of him.
On average this season at even strength, Hutchinson has been facing shots coming from five feet closer to the goal than Frederik Andersen.
Hutchinson has been tasked with 12 high-danger shots against per 60 minutes, double Andersen. And the Leafs’ expected goals against per 60 has been dramatically higher (2.83) with Hutchinson in goal compared to Andersen (1.98).
To put that last stat in context: 56 goalies have played 200-plus minutes at five-on-five this year, and Hutchinson has faced the third-most difficult shot-quality workload in those minutes. Andersen has had the 13th easiest workload, based on expected goals.
Some of that is probably on Hutchinson’s poor rebound control. But not all of it.
This isn’t a defence-of-Hutchinson column, though. He just is what he is: A 29-year-old career NHL-AHL tweener who has a .906 save percentage in 117 games played spread over seven seasons.
Part of Hutchinson’s appeal for the Leafs was he was low maintenance and, more importantly, cheap, at a league-minimum $700,000, which fits nicely under their tight cap. But he was also always easily disposable, for all of those reasons, too.
Hutchinson went on waivers on Monday in a move that made news locally but really shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise. He’s struggled, his team has struggled in the second game of back-to-backs and Kasimir Kaskisuo has been one of the best goalies in the AHL so far this season.
Part of Hutchinson’s value in a situation like this is they can waive him. They can send him down and bring him back, at will, and it doesn’t particularly matter.
Kaskisuo will be recalled on Tuesday and will likely get his first NHL start on Saturday in Pittsburgh. Part of the appeal in making the move now, frankly, is that goalies are, well, weird.
A year ago, few thought Kaskisuo would last in the AHL, let alone make it one rung higher to start for an NHL team that’s had 100-plus points the past two seasons.
Then the big Finn went on an inexplicable run in the postseason, leading the Marlies to the third round on the strength of a 9-3 record and .927 save percentage. He went from suspect to prospect and was penciled into the No. 3 spot on the organization’s depth chart entering the year.
The No. 3 is a role that matters, especially on a team like this, in which the backup could blow up at any time and there’s not enough cap space to airlift in another surefire option if things go sideways.
No. 3 goalies play a lot in the NHL. All it might take is one injury, to either a starter or a backup. Or a handful of questionable games, as in this case.
We saw it last year with Jordan Binnington in St. Louis, which turned out OK. We’ve seen it in the past in Toronto, most memorably with James Reimer in 2010-11.
Kasimir Kaskisuo (Dan Hamilton / USA Today)It happens. If it happened with Kaskisuo, it’d be more unusual than most scenarios — given his age (26) and accomplishments — but not unthinkable. And let’s face it: The Leafs don’t need a saviour anyway. They just need someone to come in and competently start 12 of the next 63 games the rest of the way.
They don’t need a .920 guy to come out of nowhere. They’ll take .905 at this point.
Kaskisuo could be that. Stranger things have happened in this league at that position. And he’s got a nice, inspirational backstory behind him, too.
It really feels like the Leafs are at a crossroads in their season already, at the quarter mark. If the playoffs started today, they’d be on the outside looking in based on points pace, as at 9-6-4 they have only the 11th-best record in the East.
Their own division, the Atlantic, has become surprisingly competitive, too, with Montreal, Florida and Buffalo all off to strong starts, joining Boston and Tampa Bay as teams ahead of Toronto in points percentage.
They’ve got some tough games upcoming, many of them on the road. The Islanders are next, on Wednesday, followed by a run of Boston, Pittsburgh (on a back-to-back), Vegas, Arizona and Colorado.
Minus Mitch Marner, running that gauntlet gets even tougher.
The Leafs are expected to get Zach Hyman back in Long Island, for the first time this season, which is a boost. Until this past weekend, his salary coming off of long-term injured reserve was going to create a cap crunch that necessitated waiving and demoting two others, likely out of the threesome of Jason Spezza, Nick Shore and Martin Marincin.
Marner’s ankle injury, however, is significant enough that he’ll go on LTIR for a month or more, freeing up plenty of cap space for the Leafs to retain (and recall) whomever they want over the next four to six weeks he’s out of the lineup.
Had he only suffered a minor ailment, one that would keep him out a week or two, the Leafs would have been headed on these very important road trips the next two weeks with a league-minimum 20-man roster.
That’s how tight Toronto’s financials are, in the wrong scenario.
In this one? The Leafs can bring back Nic Petan, along with Kaskisuo, and rotate through a variety of wingers alongside Hyman and John Tavares until they find the right fit. They’ll have the full complement of three extra roster players to mix and match and rest tired bodies.
It’ll be a good opportunity, this next month, to see what someone like Petan can bring, after he torched the AHL with seven points in three games. It’ll also mean a reprieve for Spezza, Shore and Marincin, who all could have been in the minors this week had Marner not gone down. (Petan and Marincin have been offered around the league in recent days, with no takers.)
The audition process coach Mike Babcock talked about extending out of training camp and into the first month of the season is still on. There are jobs open — on every line but Matthews’ — and the power-play and penalty-kill formations are unsettled, too.
Going with a lineup like this makes some sense as they try to cope with Marner’s absence:
Johnsson – Matthews – Nylander
Hyman – Tavares – Petan
Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Kapanen
Moore – Gauthier – Spezza/Shore
Rielly – Ceci
Muzzin – Barrie
Dermott – Holl
What the Leafs can’t afford is for their early-season funk to stretch into midseason. They’ve been having a shockingly hard time generating quality scoring chances this year, and if not for Matthews’ heroics — he’s now quietly on pace for nearly 110 points — they would be in a very difficult spot goal-production-wise.
Defensively, meanwhile, it’s been an adventure a lot of nights, with not a lot of clarity gained as to what they really have in newcomers Barrie and Ceci.
That’s a lot of unanswered questions this far into the season.
Join the party, Kaskisuo. For however long you can withstand the barrage.