BUFFALO – As the final horn sounded, Travis Dermott was the first to arrive in Michael Hutchinson’s crease to tap the goalie’s pads with his stick.
“We could’ve done more for him,” Dermott said afterward. “I think everyone will agree on that.”
There is obviously some truth in Dermott’s assessment. A horrendous second period from the Leafs saw them lose any momentum they’d built through the first period by giving up four unanswered goals.
But with the 6-4 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, the Leafs have now earned just one point from Hutchinson’s six starts. As bad as some of the Leafs’ defensive miscues were, Hutchinson also didn’t do enough to regain momentum. The Leafs allowed a three-on-one rush after a Jack Eichel penalty ended, but Hutchinson looked frozen on Eichel’s wrist shot that tied the game.
And as much as Auston Matthews sending the puck into the slot for Sabres forward Jimmy Vesey to collect was a questionable play, Vesey didn’t make the most of his backhand that went five-hole on Hutchinson for the fifth goal of the evening.
The Leafs were quick to take the blame for the way they performed in front of their backup.
“He deserves better,” Morgan Rielly said.
“It’s disappointing,” said John Tavares. “You know how much he cares, how much he’s put in all year. You know the opportunities we gave up are some pretty good opportunities with some pretty good players.”
Even if you allow that the Leafs let their foot off the gas in the second period, Hutchinson’s poor play in the loss means the concerns about just how much they need better performances from their backup will only intensify. And it should be noted just how grave any injury to Frederik Andersen would be for the Leafs’ playoff hopes.
In Hutchinson’s six starts this season, he has not allowed fewer than four goals in a game.
Amplifying the concern is the fact there’s no quick fix to what’s a continued problem for the Leafs.
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe broke from previous coach Mike Babcock’s routine by giving Hutchinson the first start in a back-to-back on Friday, with a rested team in good spirits in front of him.
“Before we made the decision to recall Hutch, we talked to a number of the players to get their perspective on the situation,” Keefe said before the game. “To a man, they felt that he deserved another opportunity and they were excited to get a chance to play in front of him again.”
That excitement was evident through the first period, as the Leafs largely controlled play and went up 2-0.
But as one goal quickly led to another in the second period, Hutchinson looked increasingly unnerved.
“You want to have two goalies who are comfortable, obviously,” said Dermott. “The more we could have helped out Hutchy, I’m sure the more comfortable he would have been going into the next game.”
Yet this season, Hutchinson has not looked as comfortable as he has to be in the backup role.
Hutchinson started the season with the Leafs before being loaned to the Marlies on Nov. 12. He was then recalled on Nov. 25.
The difference in Hutchinson’s performances at the AHL and NHL levels this season is striking. In three starts with the Marlies, Hutchinson has three wins and a .942 save percentage.
But his seven games with the Leafs are arguably the worst stretch of his professional hockey career, with a save percentage of .876. That stat is good for 58th out of 59 NHL goalies with at least 350 minutes played so far this season.
His career NHL save percentage through 117 games now sits at .905, while his AHL save percentage through 171 games is .919.
The startling difference would seem to suggest the answer about Hutchinson’s ceiling is as a goalie is clear.
“There’s a difference in skill, but things just happen quicker,” Hutchinson said of the difference between playing in the NHL and the AHL. “(Opponents) get a lot more traffic to the net and make you really look to try and find pucks. There’s a few more high-end plays.”
In the AHL this season, Hutchinson has displayed the kind of confidence that has kept the Marlies in games. That’s a difficult thing to quantify, but those around him have noticed the confidence in the AHL that was absent from his game Friday.
“Hutchy’s done a good job since he’s been here of just staying focused,” said Marlies assistant coach A.J. MacLean on Nov. 23 after Hutchinson’s third win with the Marlies. “And any time we have any type of breakdowns, he’s been standing strong for us.”
“There’s an adjustment both ways. You know when you go from the NHL down to the American League, there’s an adjustment. And then there’s an adjustment coming up,” Hutchinson said.
The need for the Leafs to address their backup-goalie woes was made all the more evident Friday as Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark, who’s not necessarily his team’s first choice, stood tall facing a few dangerous scoring opportunities, including a breakaway from William Nylander.
Hutchinson is trying to remain positive about himself and his short-term future.
“You can choose to dwell on it and have it take over your life and be negative and miserable about it or not you can, you know, take it as a learning experience, go over and watch video, see where I can improve to get my game back on track and, you know, just be positive and move forward. If you dwell on it too much you know it’s a long season. It’s only November, so there’s a long way to go,” Hutchinson said.
This is new ground for Hutchinson, who played only five games for the Leafs last season after being acquired in a December trade with the Florida Panthers. The Leafs signed Hutchinson to a one-year, $700,000 contract in June, all but solidifying his spot as the team’s backup to Andersen.
After the loss, Hutchinson was asked whether he’d ever gone through a stretch like this in his career. A slight smile emerged, perhaps because of how much things have changed for him. He played parts of five seasons for the Winnipeg Jets and never had a save percentage under .900.
“It’s one of those things where, you think in 10 years pro you’ve gone through pretty much everything, and then hockey throws something new at you,” said Hutchinson.
And while it can be argued Hutchinson wasn’t given the most optimal of situations throughout the season, with all of his previous starts in the second game of a back-to-back, that shouldn’t negate the fact he hasn’t always made the timely saves needed.
The Leafs have three more back-to-backs within the next month. On Friday morning, Keefe alluded to the importance of getting Andersen more rest.
“We need to find some traction there with the backup goaltender,” said Keefe.
What’s the answer? Making an upgrade via trade would be difficult to pull off immediately. Kyle Dubas would likely need the team he’s trading with to absorb salary in such a transaction, which would probably increase the cost to include a sweetener, such as a draft pick. But difficult as it might be, it’s an option that should be explored.
Going back to Marlies goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo, who had the unfortunate honour of playing behind the most uninspiring Leafs performance of the season in a 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in his NHL debut, doesn’t appear to be a safe option.
The Leafs could hope Hutchinson will find his way out of this rut sooner rather than later. The problem is, it’s been a long time since Hutchinson has performed in the NHL. His most effective season was the 2014-15 campaign with Winnipeg, when he posted a .914 save percentage in 38 games, which was the most work he’s ever seen in a single NHL season. Maybe more work with Steve Briere will get him turned around.
With dedicated skills sessions likely to become commonplace with Leafs practices, Hutchinson and Leafs could trust their process. The team obviously saw something in him to award him a new contract before the season.
Still, there was also a reason the organization signed Michal Neuvirth to a PTO only to see injuries derail that opportunity. They believed they needed a backup to the backup.
Right now, Hutchinson is likely hoping the most plausible option is behind Door No. 3.
“The more you play, you just feel more comfortable,” Hutchinson said.
But that could make for some very tense back-to-backs over the next month as the runway to make up points in the standings becomes shorter.
“You want to do a little extra,” Dermott said of playing in front of a goalie who hasn’t had much time in the NHL this season, “if you can.”
Sure, there were defensive miscues on Friday night, but the Leafs also scored four goals, just as they have scored four or more goals in three of Hutchinson’s six starts. If you can’t get a win scoring four goals, questions about goaltending feel justified.