EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – There’s a strange calmness for the Winnipeg Jets when a red-hot Michael Hutchinson is in goal. The team feels it can play free. It can play easy. It can play loose. Defensive breakdowns don’t equate to pucks in their own net.
And most importantly, the injury-ravaged Jets blueline can learn new roles on the fly as players have dropped seemingly once a week for the team.
“It lets the guys in front keep some confidence,” said coach Paul Maurice when asked about playing in front of hot goalies. “Mistakes happen. You’ve got your top four 'D' go down, those goalies are going to see more pucks and they’re going to see more red-zone pucks. When you’re back there tapping the goalie on the pads instead of hanging your head on the way to the bench, you can keep a little more confidence.”
Without Hutchinson in goal, are the Jets the top team in the Western Conference Wild Card race? Are they a group that has surprised the NHL with their staying power in spite of losing top player after top player to injury? The answer is probably no. A strong case can be made for the rookie as team MVP.
Maurice’s decision to go with the 24-year-old as a starter over veteran Ondrej Pavelec has worked out quite well. Hutchinson has a 2.00 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in 18 NHL games this year. In 21 career games with the Jets, he has had a 1.95 GAA and .933 save percentage.
Per Puckalytics his 5-on-5 save percentage is .941, just slightly below Nashville’s all-world Pekka Rinne at .943 (though Rinne has played in 18 more games). His 4-on-5 save percentage is .889, which is pretty decent as the site shows.
“He’s really good,” captain Andrew Ladd said. “He’s a guy who battles really hard. You see it when he’s in net, he’s always searching and trying to find ways to get over. He’s never out of a play. He’s a guy who battles to the bitter end even in practice, and he’s intense that way.”
Hutchinson’s ability to stop pucks has given the Jets more flexibility for the team to break in players from the American Hockey League and move Dustin Byfuglien between forward and defense with ease. Most importantly, he has enabled them to win games.
Hutchinson is 11-4-2 to Pavelec’s 10-10-6. In his last four games, Pavelec has allowed a total of 16 goals. His 2.52 GAA is decent. His .909 save percentage is not.
Props to Maurice for not giving into the pressure to put in the player with the bigger contract, just because he makes more money.
But Pavelec’s mere presence as an NHL goaltender with 316 games has pushed Hutchinson with internal competition, even if the humble Hutchinson fails to admit it.
“The only thing we know is the team winning games,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who plays on any given night. If we win everything is great. That has been our focus – we both support each other when the other person is playing and we just want the team to win and make the playoffs."
Currently, Hutchinson is a long shot for the Calder Trophy. It seems that many a Professional Hockey Writers’ Association member have already inscribed Nashville’s Filip Forsberg or Florida’s Aaron Ekblad on their first-place voting ballot. But those in Winnipeg know he is the key to their success. And Hutchinson doen't need the hardware to prove it.
“Last year he came in, he practiced and he was great and competed, he played three games for us and he looked exactly like the way these games play now,” Maurice said. “To expect a guy to have as good numbers for as long a period of time just coming into the league, it’s a real pleasant surprise for us.”
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