TORONTO – It was news to head coach Mike Babcock that the Maple Leafs were releasing Michal Neuvirth from his professional tryout on Tuesday morning, following the veteran goalie’s injury-plagued, 11-day stint in Toronto’s training camp.
The decision effectively ends what was expected to be a heated competition between Neuvirth and Michael Hutchinson for the Leafs’ backup goalie spot. Babcock’s full attention now is on Hutchinson being ready to take on the job.
“I wasn’t involved in [Neuvirth’s release]; I don’t know much about it. But I just know he’s not here today,” Babcock said after the Leafs’ practices on Tuesday. “We’re hoping for and we’re betting on [Hutchinson], and our goalie people have done a lot of work to set us up to make a decision there.”
Signed to a PTO by the Leafs in July, Neuvirth first missed time just three days into camp because of an undisclosed injury that kept him out of team practices for nearly a week. The 31-year-old recovered enough to play two periods against Buffalo last Saturday, making 20 saves on 22 shots, and didn’t betray any hint of recurrent issues during his post-game media availability.
“It was good to play periods. Body felt good. I’m excited for another opportunity,” he said.
The Leafs had Neuvirth pegged to share the net with Hutchinson during Monday’s preseason game in Montreal, but he was absent from morning skate. Babcock said the goalie “wasn’t feeling up to” the game.
That allowed Hutchinson to play all three periods and he turned in a terrific 38-save shutout, backstopping Toronto’s primarily American Hockey League lineup to a 3-0 win over a more NHL-heavy Canadiens’ roster.
The combination of his strong performance and the aftermath of Neuvirth’s release could have Hutchinson riding especially high, but the 29-year-old knows the importance of staying even-keeled.
“It was a good game for me, but today is a new day and things can change really quickly in the hockey world,” Hutchinson said Tuesday. “Now it’s about moving forward and taking the momentum from that and continuing it. When [Neuvirth] was here, I was just focusing on myself and doing what I could to earn the guys’ trust, working hard in practice, and that doesn’t change.”
Hutchinson had come into Leafs’ camp with an upper hand on Neuvirth by virtue of time already spent in the Leafs’ organization. Acquired in a trade with Florida last December, Hutchinson played five games with Toronto in January while starter Frederik Andersen and former backup Garret Sparks were both injured, posting a 2-3-0 record with .914 save percentage.
When the Leafs were back to full health, Hutchinson was assigned to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and thrived, finishing with a .910 save percentage and 14-7-1 record. It wasn’t until the postseason that the Leafs called on Hutchinson again, recalling him to replace Sparks behind Andersen for the second half of their first-round playoff series against Boston.
Now Hutchinson has the inside track to start right where he left off, in an NHL backup post that comes loaded with expectations.
“The biggest thing is [Hutchinson] and [goalie coach] Steve [Briere] just have to work together and make sure we have a good stable backup so that we’re in a position where we can start him any time and not worry about it and know you have an opportunity to win,” Babcock said. “That’s the biggest challenge for you; you’ve got to win games.”
Babcock has balked at putting a number on how many starts Andersen will get this season, and whether it will be more or less than the 60-plus he’s received in each of the last three seasons. Knowing that decision is ultimately out of his control, Andersen said the more important thing is being comfortable with the partner he’s given.
“It’s ideal when it’s a very trusting three-man group with me, the backup and the goalie coach,” Andersen said. “That’s how I function best and that’s a good way to do it, with a healthy competition and a relationship where the three of us expect a lot out of each other and we’re not afraid to help each other with certain things.”
While Hutchinson’s previous experience around the team may make him the safest choice to run with, it’s possible the Leafs fish for another backup option on the waiver wire or potentially orchestrate a trade to bring in another netminder.
But finding another potential backup at the right price could be a challenge. Hutchinson comes in at a reasonable $700,000 cap hit for the coming season, making him a model fit financially for the cap-strapped Leafs.
For his part, Hutchinson feels prepared to step into a full-season role as the Leafs’ second goaltender, no matter how many or how few the opportunities to play end up being.
“When you’re younger it’s tough when you’re not playing every game to stay fully confident in your game, and that’s one of the things I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older,” he said. “If you come to the rink with that confidence that you’re going to play and have success, it’s going to turn out more often than not. You’re earning the guys trust in practice and when you get a chance to play, [they have] that confidence that you’re going to make the stops.”