Jets’ surprise No. 1 thankful Bruins gave up on him

Winnipeg Jets' goaltender Michael Hutchinson is thankful for his latest NHL opportunity. (Trevor Hagan/CP)

TORONTO — It’s morning, which means Michael Hutchinson must be thankful.

Hutchinson is thankful he gets to stop pucks snapped at him by the world’s elite, savouring every one of the 1,589 minutes he’s spent in the blue paint this season.

The Barrie, Ont., native is thankful that 50 of his closest friends and family members will file into Air Canada Centre tonight to see him play in the closest thing to a homecoming.

And he’s especially grateful to the Boston Bruins — the team that took a chance on him as a third-round draft choice seven years ago — for giving up on him.

“You take every moment for granted and really cherish it. Every day I wake up excited to come to practice. I get to skate with the best players in the world every single day,” Hutchinson says. “It’s unbelievable — one of those things where every day you wake up and can’t believe where you are.”

Where Hutchinson was two years ago was two injuries away from sniffing a National Hockey League start, and with the Bruins using their 2012 first-round pick on another young goalie, Malcolm Subban, ironically Hutchinson’s place on the Eastern power’s depth chart was slipping with each minute of pro hockey he played.

So when his entry-level deal with the Bruins expired in 2013, Hutchinson says Boston did him a favour by cutting him loose. These words, it must be noted, are said with genuine appreciation; this is not a revenge tale, although Hutchinson’s first NHL victory was a 2-1 shootout victory over his former team.(And young Subban did get chased in his own NHL debut Friday.)

“I have a lot of respect for Boston, giving me a chance to try to get on with another organization. It gave me a chance to get into the league with a team that didn’t have as much goaltending depth as they did,” Hutchinson explains. “I’m thankful they didn’t re-sign me and gave me a shot to come here to Winnipeg.”

Despite the Jets’ dearth of talent in the crease, Hutchinson began 2013-14 wearing an Ontario Reign sweater, competing in the league below the league below the league.

A sterling 22-4-2 record in the ECHL accelerated a promotion to the Jets’ AHL affiliate, the St. John’s IceCaps. And when IceCaps starter Edward Pasquale went down to injury, Hutchinson impressed so much, he got a three-game taste of the NHL late last season.

With the Jets out of the 2014 playoff race, Hutchinson returned to the IceCaps for their post-season run and backstopped them to their first Calder Cup final, posting a .938 save percentage.

That performance under pressure and the sampling of NHL action in a few otherwise meaningless games last April gave Hutchinson confidence heading into training camp – even if this very site ranked him a Tier 7 backup, the lowest.

Hutchinson has obliterated the goal he set for himself in September—just make the team—completing his depth-chart ascent past the blip that was Peter Budaj and the long-term commitment that is Ondrej Pavelec, a goalie who makes $3.325 million more than Hutchinson to do the same job less often and less effectively.

Hutchinson leads all rookies in minutes, wins (17), save percentage (.920) and goals-against average (2.30). But perhaps his most impressive stat—especially in the thick of wild-card battle where every bonus points helps—is that he has stopped all 14 of the 14 shooters he’s faced in shootouts.

But don’t mention the Calder Trophy consideration to him; he’s learned to not count on a thing. Like the rest of his teammates, his goal is to outrace the surging L.A. Kings and Minnesota Wild, to make the playoffs.

“I definitely didn’t expect to be playing as much as I have my first year, but at the same time, I try not to overthink things or get ahead of myself,” he says. “If you win games, your stats will even out throughout the year.”

Tonight Hutchinson returns to the arena he felt grateful to visit a couple of times a young hockey fan, making the hour drive south from Barrie. Back then, Hutchinson was a huge Felix Potvin fan.

“He was the first goalie I remember with different pads and a pretty cool mask. As a kid, you’re just drawn to that,” Hutchinson says.

“I remember seeing him on the Don Cherry videos making highlight-reel saves. As a kid, those are the types of things you look for.”

It’s Hockey Night in Canada, Michael. Don Cherry intermission and all. Fifty friends cheering your name at the ACC.

Who knows? Maybe it’ll even go to a shootout.