BUFFALO, N.Y. — Michael Hutchinson is a likeable guy who always shows up to the rink smiling and ready to work. It’s no surprise to hear his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates lobbied on his behalf to get a second crack at the backup goaltending job.
But after watching him let another opportunity slip by with another four-goal period against, Leafs management has to start considering the ugly side of the business.
They need to aggressively be looking for his replacement.
If it’s not Kasimir Kaskisuo, who was shelled in his first and only career NHL start at Pittsburgh earlier this month, then they need to find an external option. That comes with complications because of Toronto’s precarious salary-cap situation, but the alternative — doing nothing — could amount to something much worse.
It might end up costing them a playoff spot.
Here we are two months into the season and the Leafs have banked all of one point thanks to their No. 2 goaltender. They are one of two teams still searching for a win courtesy of the backup — Columbus has three loser points when Elvis Merzlikins plays — and with Hutchinson they’ve now had three games with a multi-goal lead turn into a loss.
He wasn’t horrible in Friday’s 6-4 defeat to the Buffalo Sabres, but he was outplayed by counterpart Linus Ullmark who stopped three breakaways at the other end of the ice. The Leafs simply needed one more save from Hutchinson — just as they did in his start at Chicago, his start at Washington and his start at home against Montreal on the first weekend of the season.
“I think there will be a lot of focus on Hutch, of course, but I mean there’s a lot more going on in the game than just that,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe.
“We haven’t been all-too-good for him all year,” said Auston Matthews. “You definitely feel for a guy like that, who comes in and gives it his all every game. We’ve just got to be better for him.”
Hutchinson is not without blame even if turnovers and missed assignments gave the likes of Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner great scoring opportunities at KeyBank Center.
There are troubling patterns developing here.
He’s made 14 NHL starts dating back to last season and posted a save percentage above .900 in just two of those games.
Among goaltenders with at least five appearances this year, he’s 61st of 62 with an .876 save percentage — and Cory Schneider (.852), the only guy worse, was recently demoted to the American Hockey League by New Jersey.
Hutchinson is doing his best to keep a brave face amid the struggles, but acknowledges that he’s never had a stretch of play as concerning as this one.
“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,” he said.
“You can choose to dwell on it and have it kind of take over your life and be negative or miserable about it, or you can take it as a learning experience,” he added. “Go over and watch the video, see where I can improve to get my game back on track and just be positive and move forward. If you dwell on it too much, it’s a long season. It’s only November still so there’s a long way to go.”
The Leafs had hoped that giving Hutchinson the first game in a back-to-back would bring more success. But after building a 2-0 lead on goals from captain John Tavares in a matinee start on Black Friday, the Sabres pumped four shots by him inside a 14-minute stretch.
It was the third time this season he’s given up that many goals in a period and you’re simply not going to win games when that happens.
“For myself, it wasn’t the cleanest game – I was battling hard trying to find pucks – but that’s one of those things where the more you play, you just feel more comfortable,” said Hutchinson.
His time with the Leafs already appeared to be over under former head coach Mike Babcock when he cleared waivers on Nov. 12 and was assigned to the AHL.
He got another crack at the job when Keefe replaced Babcock behind the bench and surveyed his players this week for their opinion on the 29-year-old journeyman.
“To a man, they felt that he deserved another opportunity,” said Keefe.
Frederik Andersen will start when the Leafs and Sabres complete a home-and-home series on Saturday and there should already be concerns about his workload. He’s currently on pace for 68 games this regular season and there were internal conversations before their back-to-back set with Boston and Pittsburgh earlier this month about playing him on both nights.
That didn’t end up happening, but it underscores how urgent the organization feels its situation is.
The Leafs have another set of back-to-back games coming up next week and they’re going to need someone other than Andersen to start getting wins after a 12-11-4 start.
Assuming it’s not Hutchinson or Kaskisuo, they have basically $800,000 to spend on the backup position with a fully healthy roster. The best potential option under that number is Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry, but general manager Jim Rutherford will drive a hard bargain in trade talks.
In order to bring in a more expensive option, Toronto would have to remove salary from the roster to make the accounting work.
With that in mind, you can understand why they want to make it work with Hutchinson. He’s a popular teammate and a salary-cap fit. But his goals against in successive starts now reads five, four, four, five, five and five.
His record is 0-5-1.
“It’s disappointing,” said Tavares. “We know how much he cares, how much [work] he’s put in all year. The opportunities we gave up are some pretty good opportunities to some pretty good players.
“We just weren’t as good as we can be with the puck.”
And they weren’t quite good enough between the pipes either.