Maple Leafs turn to familiar fallback Hutchinson for back-to-back opener

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a familiar backup between the pipes these days in Michael Hutchinson.

TORONTO — Few constants are as seemingly inevitable as Michael Hutchinson winding up in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ net.

Even as the goaltending corps around him has undergone a significant revamping over the past few seasons — the No. 1 torch passed from Frederik Andersen to Jack Campbell, the next-man-up list dotted with names such as Garret Sparks, David Rittich, now Petr Mrazek — Hutchinson has kept coming back as the club’s go-to fallback option, holding down the fort when injuries push the team’s plans off course.

He’ll take up that role again Friday against the San Jose Sharks, with coach Sheldon Keefe naming the 31-year-old as the starter for the first installment of his side’s upcoming back-to-back.

It wasn’t how the plan was supposed to shake out five games into the year, with Mrazek inked to an $11.4-million deal in the off-season to form a quality Maple Leafs tandem alongside Campbell. But a groin injury suffered in Mrazek’s first go-round in blue and white has pulled Hutchinson back into the picture while Campbell rests for Saturday’s tilt.

After what he showed last time out, though, the club is confident Hutchinson is up to the task once again.

“He’s proven to be tremendously valuable,” Keefe said of Hutchinson after Thursday’s practice. “We saw last season, when he came up in that role, he did a really good job for us, won some big games. I think he’s really done a nice job of building the confidence that the organization and his teammates have in him.”

The Maple Leafs faithful need only look to their team’s next two opponents in this back-to-back stretch for some perspective on the value of their veteran No. 3.

In San Jose, subpar goaltending depth over the past few seasons forced the Sharks to ride with Martin Jones longer than they likely would’ve preferred as his numbers continued to dive. And the Pittsburgh Penguins, set to meet the Maple Leafs on Saturday, are fresh off seeing their 2021 post-season effort collapse because they lacked a quality No. 3 to play in place of Tristan Jarry — the young starter was put back in the net for a win-or-go-home Game 6 against the Islanders despite seeming rattled after a double-overtime gaffe a game prior, the club having little choice with their second option injured and their third having only 18 games of big-league experience.

“The ability to have a guy of that calibre, that’s played in the league as much as he has, as our third goaltender, it’s a nice asset for us to have here,” Keefe said. “I thought he was outstanding in practice today. Dialled in. And those are the kind of things that you need from your depth.”

Hutchinson will have a favourable situation in which to make his season debut on Friday, the Sharks coming to town to face the well-rested Maple Leafs after a tilt with the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night.

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“We were trying to put Hutchinson in a position to succeed, and we thought coming off of a practice day right into a game day tomorrow is a good opportunity for him to do that,” Keefe said of the decision to have him go in Game 1 of the back-to-back.

Also part of the equation was the club’s continued effort to manage Campbell’s workload in Mrazek’s absence, said Keefe. The 29-year-old was given only around 15 minutes of work during Tuesday’s skate before leaving early as the practice was set to be a heavy one for the netminders. He was back in the mix as a full participant Thursday.

Campbell will get the Penguins in his return to the cage, with every chance to succeed given Pittsburgh seems likely to be without centres Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jeff Carter, as well as Jarry. But judging by what he’s showed so far, the Leafs’ No. 1 is up for it regardless of who makes it into the opposing lineup come Saturday.

“He’s been on fire,” William Nylander said Thursday of his netminder. “I’ve told him he’s been incredible. And he just needs to keep playing the way he’s been playing, and we’ll be good.”

Campbell heads into his fourth start with a .953 save percentage on the season, after a pair of impressive wins over Montreal and Ottawa and plenty of late heroics in a wild overtime loss to the Rangers Monday that could’ve swung either way.

“Phenomenal. It’s what we expected from him,” Jason Spezza said of Campbell’s play so far. “He was here for a while leading up to camp, and works really hard on his game. I think he’s getting confidence in his game, getting a chance to play lots of games in a row. You know, last year I think gave him that confidence, knowing that he can do it. Now he looks very calm with it, and just business-like.”

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