WASHINGTON, D.C. — Barry Trotz used to call these “junk-mail assignments.”
Those nights where you send your No. 2 goaltender out behind a tired team on the rough end of a back-to-back, basically crossing your fingers that he’ll be able to deliver the goods. They are the games where you’re not going to come down too hard on him if he’s not quite up to the task.
The journeyman was hardly the only culprit in Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals, but he did get burned for three goals in a 78-second span after Toronto had built him a first-period lead. This is a difficult, often thankless job. Even if Hutchinson was never really put in a position to succeed, he still had to own part of the defeat.
“You’re never happy when you lose a game or let in four goals,” he said. “But they made some good plays.”
It can’t be overstated how tough this spot is.
Mike Babcock cited a statistic saying that a team playing back-to-back against a rested opponent only wins 29 per cent of the time. That explains why the Leafs always give No. 1 man Frederik Andersen the first start in a back-to-back situation no matter who or where they’re playing. It always represents their best chance at two points.
Lo and behold, they’re two-for-two in those situations to start this season — winning 4-1 in Columbus on Oct. 4 with Andersen in net and 4-2 against Minnesota on Tuesday night.
That left Hutchinson to start in games where his teammates travelled and had short rests, and they’re games where he wound up surrendering nine goals on 74 shots.
“My job doesn’t change,” Hutchinson said when asked about the mentality needed to handle a junk-mail assignment. “Whether we’re playing the second game of a back-to-back, or you’re playing the first game, or you’re playing the game where the other team’s rested, as a goalie your job’s to just stop the puck.
“That has to be your mindset going into games. You can’t get concerned about if the guys are tired, if the guys slept well the night before — that’s completely out of my control, and at the end of the day it doesn’t make any difference in myself making reads and putting myself in a position to stop the puck.”
Defensive breakdowns made his job more challenging against the Capitals. Hutchinson was beaten on point-blank chances — a wide-open Jakub Vrana one-timer, a partial Evgeny Kuznetsov breakaway, a Nicklas Backstrom wrister from the bottom of the circle and a John Carlson blast on a 5-on-3 power play — but teams hope their goaltenders can get in front of some of the difficult shots in addition to the easy ones.
“I haven’t had a chance to go through the whole thing. We’ll look at it close on the flight,” said Babcock. “The bottom line is we gotta do a better job of keeping it out of our net. A couple of the sort-outs in our own D-zone weren’t good enough. It’s one thing if they’ve made a play that’s unbelievable, but if you’re not standing next to your guy, that’s on you.”
Toronto actually enjoyed a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from third-liners Kasperi Kapanen and Ilya Mikheyev.
However, just like in Hutchinson’s only previous start this season, the Leafs couldn’t nurse home a multi-goal advantage. They were ahead of Montreal 4-1 in the third period of an Oct. 5 game at home and wound up losing that one 6-5 in a shootout.
“I feel fine,” said Hutchinson. “They’ve been two good challenges and two good opportunities and we’ve come close to getting two points in both games.”
It’s still extremely early, sure, but the job isn’t likely going to get any easier.
Assuming the Leafs continue to deploy him as originally planned, Hutchinson will get the call next Tuesday in Boston and then Oct. 26 at the Bell Centre in Montreal. And his leash might not extend too far beyond that.
When Babcock was asked earlier this month about the growth he’d seen in Hutchinson’s game, he replied: “How many games did Hutch play for us last year?”
The answer was five.
“So, let’s watch,” said Babcock. “He’s got four big games, and so we need to be in a situation where we have a guy we can count on and a guy we can know goes in there and we can help him win so that’s a priority for him.”
Toronto has cycled through a revolving door of backups during Babcock’s time behind the bench, including a stint with Jhonas Enroth that spanned just four starts and six total appearances in 2016-17.
Curtis McElhinney took over for the next season and a half before getting lost to Carolina on waivers at the end of last year’s training camp. Garret Sparks struggled as the backup last season and was traded to Vegas during the summer.
The Leafs brought veteran Michal Neuvirth to training camp on a professional tryout agreement to challenge Hutchinson for the backup job this fall, but he struggled to stay healthy and was released.
Should they end up looking for another option in-season, they’ll be inhibited by their salary cap squeeze. It would basically have to be a money-in, money-out proposition.
The most appealing scenario for the organization is seeing things work out with Hutchinson. He’s got internal support from both Andersen and goalie coach Steve Briere, among others.
But he also has to deliver on the occasional junk-mail assignment.
“You gotta find a way each and every night and you need different people to do it each and every night,” said Babcock. “You can’t give up as many goals on the back-to-back. That’s 10 goals in two games back-to-back.
“Can’t do it.”