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Michael Hutchinson spent only four months in St. John’s, and that was back in 2014, when the St. John’s IceCaps were manufacturing a magnificent run to the Calder Cup final.
Hutchinson, of course, played a leading role in that IceCaps’ championship chase, and today, as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ netminding candidate returns to the city for the Leafs’ training camp, he looks back on that time in Newfoundland five years ago as a turning point in his career.
“Oh yeah,” he said Friday morning, as the Leafs kicked off camp with a Team Salming workout at the Paradise Double Ice Complex, “for sure, that year was definitely the turning point for me.”
Hutchinson, a 29-year-old product of Barrie, Ont., was at a low point in his career in 2013. He’d just completed his three-year entry-level contract with the Boston Bruins, but the B’s showed no interest in re-signing the goalie, who split his time between Providence of the American Hockey League and the ECHL’s Reading Royals.
The Winnipeg Jets were kicking the tires, but offering only a one-year deal. What’s more, they were basically telling Hutchinson he would start in the ECHL, behind Ondrej Pavelec and Al Montoya in Winnipeg and Eddie Pasquale and rookie Jussi Olkinuora in St. John’s.
Hutchinson plugged his nose and signed, and, just as he figured, was dispatched to the ECHL’s Ontario Reign — in Ontario, Calif.
But rather than report to Ontario and sulk through the season, Hutchinson played well and played often, winning a pair of ECHL goaltender of the week awards early on.
In mid-January, the Jets abandoned the Olkinuora experiment, assigning the rookie Finn to the ECHL while recalling Hutchinson.
Following an embarrassing 6-0 home-ice loss to the Manchester Monarchs on Jan. 18, Hutchinson got the start the next night and shut out the Monarchs in his first appearance at Mile One Centre.
He went on to win another five straight games.
Through the second half of that 2013-14 AHL campaign, the IceCaps were the league’s hottest team, winning 26 of 36 games.
And a big reason was Hutchinson’s play between the pipes, going 17-5-1 with a 2.30 goals against average and .923 save percentage.
He was just as good in the playoffs, posting 1.95 GAA and .938 save percentage numbers as the IceCaps marched to the league final before running into a very good Texas Stars club and being dispatched in five games.
For Hutchinson, the chance to play every day that season, first in Ontario and then to finish up things in St. John’s, was a godsend to a goalie who wasn’t used to a heavy workload.
“Even in junior,” he said Friday, “and going into Providence, I was never the goalie who played every single night. I was always the guy who played one night, and sat the next. In Providence, I was lucky to get one game in a weekend.
“Going down to Ontario and playing a ton of games in a row was huge for me, knowing I could perform every single night.
“And then, coming up to the American league and St. John’s, and playing well at a higher level was huge for my confidence. To be able to play so much that year was huge.”
Confidence is a funny thing. All the good goalies have it, and in 2014, as Hutchinson kept piling up wins in St. John’s, he gained a self-assurance he had never experienced before.
“As you get older, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing every night or once every couple of weeks,” he said. “If you have that confidence, you’re going to be successful. Confidence goes a long way.
“But when you’re younger, I think you need to play every night to gain the confidence that you can play at that level. So that was huge for me that year. That, and the couple of games with the Jets at the end of the season. To go up there and see that I could play at that level was unbelievable.”
Late in the year, when injury felled Montoya, Hutchinson was recalled to Winnipeg. He got his first NHL start, and very nearly beat the Minnesota Wild, allowing only a single goal in a 1-0 loss. Impressed, Jets coach Paul Maurice gave Hutchinson another two games, and the sub delivered, beating the Bruins and Calgary Flames in the Jets’ final two games of the season.
He returned to St. John’s, and then made his imprint on a lengthy playoff run.
Hutchinson made the Jets the next season, and spent the next three years in the NHL.
Last year, the bulk of his time was spent with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and Springfield Falcons, after languishing through nearly all of the 2018-19 campaign with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
This season, Hutchinson is vying to become Frederik Andersen’s understudy with the Leafs. He and Michal Neuvirth will fight for that job.
And this time he’s not overly concerned with playing every game.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org