Michael Hutchinson lives Maple Leafs dream in unplanned start

Mitch Marner had two goals in a losing effort after Zach Parise put away the winner in the third, giving the Wild a 4-3 win over the Maple Leafs.

TORONTO — Until mere days ago, Michael Hutchinson had zero inclination that the next generation of Toronto Maple Leafs goaltenders would ever include him.

Yet there the 28-year-old found himself on Thursday afternoon, standing in the crease at Scotiabank Arena wearing the sweater of his boyhood team, taking an extra moment during the national anthems to look around and soak in the moment.

This is the stuff kids dream of before they grow into men and learn that pro hockey is the kind of business where your life can be turned upside down with one phone call. It’s the kind of business where you can spend Christmas with family in Winnipeg, return to Springfield, Mass., and be traded immediately to Toronto, start an American Hockey League game with the Marlies on New Year’s Eve and then follow in the footsteps of your idols by getting called up to the Leafs.

All inside a 10-day window.

"When I got traded here, you kind of hope that you get a chance to play for the Leafs," said Hutchinson, who was raised about 100 kilometres north of the city in Barrie. "It was really exciting to get my first game under [my belt], but it also makes you hungry to get more. And to get the first win and go from there."

That this particular start ended in a 4-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild didn’t dim the significance for Hutchinson. His wife and parents were able to make their way to the arena and watch from the stands, as were untold others who knew him from Barrie.

He tried to keep his mind in small spaces, as goaltenders in particular are trained to do, but the sheer unusualness of the situation couldn’t be completely ignored.

"It was a little bit hectic," said Hutchinson. "I found out last night so things moved pretty fast."

It took not only last week’s groin injury to Leafs starter Frederik Andersen, which prompted Kyle Dubas to part with a 2020 fifth-rounder and acquire Hutchinson in a Dec. 29 trade, but also an errant William Nylander shot that hit Garret Sparks in the mask during Wednesday’s practice.

That put Sparks in concussion protocol and saw both Hutchinson and Kasimir Kaskisuo called up on an emergency basis before the game against the Wild.

Other than Nazem Kadri and John Tavares, whom he played with before reaching the NHL, Hutchinson knew none of his teammates. He had to introduce himself to head coach Mike Babcock in the hours before the only afternoon start of the Leafs season.

"I asked what his first name was, he told me. I asked him what he liked to be called, he said ‘Hutch.’ I said, ‘Have fun,"’ said Babcock.

Then he went out and faced 19 shots in the first period.

That came after Mitch Marner gave the Leafs a 2-0 lead inside six minutes and Minnesota hit back with a strong push. Toronto got buried in its own end and had 17 defensive zone faceoffs in the opening 20 minutes alone, according to Babcock.

Hutchinson finished with 30 saves, many of them on point-blank looks. It was not a game where his teammates controlled the puck and made things easy on him.

"Full credit to him," said Tavares. "The way he came in and met pretty much everyone for the first time, probably no idea about our system and kind of the things we’re trying to accomplish that can be predictable for the goaltender. Under the set of circumstances, it’s not an easy position."

"He did a hell of a job," added Marner. "He kept us in a lot of those chances and he kept us in as long as he could."

Hutchinson is a veteran of 102 appearances for the Winnipeg Jets — losing his only previous start in this building, in overtime, back on Feb. 21, 2015 — and is now battling to re-establish himself as a reliable NHL backup.

The Florida Panthers envisioned him as a solid No. 3 option when they signed him to a $1.3-million, one-year deal over the summer, but Hutchinson struggled in four starts when Roberto Luongo was injured in October.

Hutchinson spent the rest of his time in AHL Springfield before getting traded to Toronto.

This can be considered a small window of opportunity since the Leafs lost both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers at the end of training camp, and are dealing with a fair amount of uncertainty in the crease.

Andersen has been skating with goalie coach Steve Briere daily, but hasn’t participated in a full practice since Dec. 27. Sparks may have a concussion and there’s no way to know when he might return. And Kaskisuo has had a tough year for the Marlies and hasn’t ever played a NHL game.

There have been internal discussions about acquiring more goaltending depth, according to Babcock, but as of right now Hutchinson is his healthiest, most experienced option. And all things considered, he acquitted himself fairly well against the Wild.

"I thought Hutch gave us an opportunity," said Babcock. "That’s all you can ask of him."

The Leafs will probably be asking him to do it again when the Vancouver Canucks are in here on Saturday night.

For a kid who grew up watching Felix Potvin shine on "Hockey Night in Canada," that would be another dream come true.

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