Michael Hutchinson doesn’t wish to divulge the details of what was said exactly, but he does want to stress the tone and flow of the conversation he had with his boss upon his return to the Toronto Maple Leafs crease.
For netminders not named Frederik Andersen, the blue paint has morphed into a Bermuda Semicircle of sorts, swallowing he who paddles into Toronto’s backup goaltender role with the illusion that he might somehow keep afloat without being waived (Curtis McElhinney, Calvin Pickard), traded for an inactive player (Garret Sparks), tossed to the wolves in the Let’s-Get-the-Coach-Fired Bowl (Kasimir Kaskisuo), waking up to play his trade in Minsk (Jhonas Enroth), or vanishing from the sport entirely (Michal Neuvirth).
Unlike Hutchinson’s predecessors — and despite the fact his most recent NHL victory dates all the way back to Jan. 10 — GM Kyle Dubas is granting the 29-year-old a second chance this weekend, to seize the gig and deliver (gulp) the Leafs’ first victory by a backup goalie all season.
“Kyle and I had a good talk the other day about everything,” Hutchinson told Sportsnet Tuesday upon his recall.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe, Marlies GM Laurence Gilman, the assistant coaches, they’ve all made a point of checking in with “Hutch” after his 0-4-1 start led to an AHL demotion two weeks ago.
“Everyone kind of talking to make sure that you’re OK. They care about you as a person, and that definitely goes a long way. The conversations were good because they weren’t one-way conversations. It wasn’t them talking at you or down to you, you know? There’s a lot of give-and-take on both sides, and that’s the way you can kind of come to grips with the situation you’re in and move forward.”
The Keefe Era is one being fostered by collaboration and communication.
Flexibility trumping rigidity.
So, it was of small surprise to hear the rookie coach announce his plan to deviate from former coach Mike Babcock’s predictable pattern of exclusively starting Andersen’s understudy on the second half of back-to-backs.
“My position on it is that I don’t think I have one position,” Keefe says. “I think each situation is unique, and you look at each situation as that.”
Babcock’s preference to always grant Andersen in the first half of consecutive games yielded great results early but did come at the expense of cultivating the confidence in any backup not named McElhinney.
We could debate all day about which party deserves which portion of the blame for that — the coach, the sluggish players in front, management for not pursuing and paying for a more qualified No. 2 (the Penguins have an extra; the Rangers may be open to dealing Alexandar Georgiev) — but ultimately Hutchinson has to stop the dang puck, and his NHL save percentage this season is .879.
Does he see the call-up under Keefe as a fresh page to rewrite his narrative?
“Mentally, yes,” Hutchinson says. “I can’t change what happened in the first little bit, but now I can focus on the rest of the season, take it one day at a time and just working on building towards having that consistency in helping the team win games.
“It was a long two weeks, but the Marlies is a good situation down there. They have a good team, a good group of guys. It’s a fun atmosphere down there, so just fun to go and get some games and get some wins. I’m also glad to be a back up here.”
It’s important that he’ll be standing behind a reinvigorated bunch when he faces the Sabres on Black Friday afternoon in Buffalo.
“It’s big,” Morgan Rielly says. “As a group, we have to play better for him. I mean, it’s been a couple of times now we’ve been saying that. It’s time to play like it. Obviously, his teammates are aware of it, so it’s on us now to play well, to prepare and to help him out a bit.”
Every recall comes at an expense. In this case, it’s poor, upbeat Kaskisuo, who puts a positive spin on a dream realized, albeit in the 6-1 shellacking in Pittsburgh. He had been eager to redeem himself this weekend.
“I have no reference point, really, on what to expect from an NHL game, so I don’t really know if that was a really hard game or really easy game,” Kaskisuo told us right before being returned to the AHL. “Guys really were ready for a change, to get Sheldon in and try something new. And with two wins, I feel like it’s working.
“For me, of course, it’s a comfortability thing. I’ve known Sheldon for about four years, and it’s fun to have him around.”
Keefe says he chose Hutchinson over Kaskisuo (for now) because he’s the hotter hand. Kaskisuo’s most recent experience was getting the Jackson Pollock treatment at PPG Paints Arena two weeks ago; Hutchinson just went 3-0 with a sparkling .942 save percentage during his Marlies stint.
“It wasn’t really necessarily one versus the other. It was that Hutch has played and is sharp and, of course, has the experience here,” Keefe says. “We want to give him another chance.”
While Keefe is noncommittal, our hunch with Hutch is that his chance should be Friday’s matinee. This would allow the new coach to put his signature on the decision-making, and AHL goalies are accustomed to 4 p.m. puck drops.
“When you play consistently at seven o’clock and then you have an afternoon game, sometimes it does throw you off because hockey players are creatures of habit,” Hutchinson explains. “In the past, I got caught up in trying to implement my seven o’clock game routine into an earlier start, but that doesn’t always work out. I personally [developed] a slightly different routine for a four o’clock game.”
After a difficult demotion —”there’s no denying that,” Hutchinson says — the goaltender asserts that his head is clear and he’s eager to become the 14th Marlie to win under Keefe at the NHL level.
“Like I said to Sheldon when he got the job up here, I was really happy for him. I’ve had the privilege of playing for a lot of coaches, and I think he’s the best coach that I’ve personally had. So I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done.
“We’re building towards something and really making a run at it,” Hutchinson says. “So for myself, it’s just having that mental reset.”