The Toronto Maple Leafs waived backup goaltender Michael Hutchinson following their 5-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. Hutchinson posted an exceptionally poor 0-4-1 record and an equally poor 4.44 goals-against average in his six games with the team this season.
He did not play well. No one is going to argue otherwise, but the Maple Leafs need to put their backup goalies in a better position to succeed going forward. For the immediate future, that will be Kasimir Kaskisuo of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. If Kaskisuo is going to do better than Hutchinson, the Maple Leafs need to make a change.
In 2019-20, all five of the games that Hutchinson started were on the second half of back-to-backs. He may not be the best goalie in the world, but the Maple Leafs did not put him in the best position to succeed by only starting him in the second half of back-to-backs.
This philosophy from the Maple Leafs has put a great amount of stress on their backup goalies. There are a few reasons for this, but the most prevalent have been the quality of their opponents and the exhaustion of the Leafs.
Frederik Andersen has started the first half of back-to-back games, regardless of the opponent. This is something the team needs to change going forward. On more than one occasion this season, Andersen started a game against a presumably weak opponent, leaving a far stronger team for Hutchinson to play the next day. When Andersen was deployed against the Minnesota Wild, Hutchinson was tasked with playing the Washington Capitals. Likewise, Andersen played the Columbus Blue Jackets while Hutchinson got the Boston Bruins. The Maple Leafs need to change their approach to these games and match the level of their goaltenders to the level of their opponents.
Every time Hutchinson has started this season, he has played behind a tired team. From just his position, it is hard to expect stellar results given his circumstances. Prior to four of the games Hutchinson started, the Maple Leafs had to travel to the opposing team’s city. This compounds the exhaustion the team feels after just playing a game. While his individual play was ultimately on him, blame should be placed on the team for the way he was utilized.
Give Freddy a Break
Since being traded to Toronto following the 2015-16 season, Andersen has been near the top of the league in games played. He has played a combined 207 games since arriving and every season that goes by has been plagued with comments about his over-usage. The time has come to give him a break.
It may be difficult to start an unproven goaltender like Kaskisuo over Andersen, given that Andersen has been such a valuable player for the Leafs. However, it will mean both a healthier Andersen and a better opportunity for Kaskisuo.
Andersen missed three weeks last season due to a groin injury. Had he not been injured, his games started likely would have met or eclipsed the 66-game mark he set in 2016-17 and 2017-18. The injury and his subsequent poor play were as much a product of wear and tear as anything else. If the Maple Leafs want to be in a position to make a deep playoff run, they need to make sure their star goalie is healthy and rested come April.
The Maple Leafs are not a team looking to go to the lengths that the 2018-19 New York Islanders or Dallas Stars went to by platooning two goalies evenly, nor should they be. However, the team needs to make better use of their backup goaltenders by playing them more frequently. If Andersen played closer to 55 games this season it would only require Kaskisuo to make an additional 10 starts on top of his back-to-back commitments.
Same Plan, Same Results
Kaskisuo made his NHL debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins, once again in the second half of a back-to-back. It went about as poorly as possible as Toronto dropped the game 6-1. It would appear that Kaskisuo will continue to play exclusively in the second half of back-to-backs, per Mike Babcock. Despite the lack of results with Hutchinson, the game plan remains unchanged.
While it is a myth that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, the sentiment holds true. The Maple Leafs have been playing with the same plan regarding their goalie situation for well over a year. So far it has been ineffective with Garret Sparks and Hutchinson.
That is a broad stroke to paint, as both players experienced challenges that cannot be pinned solely on the nature of their deployment. Their team, however, did little to help them. To avoid the same thing happening with Kaskisuo, the Maple Leafs must be willing to adapt and change their strategy. If they do not they could be looking at the next in a line of underachieving backup goalies.