Michael Hutchinson had his chance, didn’t cut it, and now he’s gone. He cleared waivers on Nov. 12, after going winless in five starts this season, posting a 4.44 goals-against average and a .879 save percentage.
I suppose in some way it helps that the Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares admitted that the team hung Hutchinson out to dry, or however you wish to interpret what Tavares means when he says: “We did not play very well and didn’t give him much of an opportunity to get some good results and feel better about himself.” (from Kaskisuo joins Maple Leafs as Tavares acknowledges players let Hutchinson down, Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 12/11/19)
The Maple Leafs Call Up Kaskisuo
The Maple Leafs called up Finnish goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies on Nov. 12, and it’s likely the 26-year-old Kaskisuo will make his first NHL start on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That is, after all, the first chance head coach Mike Babcock will have to put anyone other than starter Frederik Andersen into the second game of a back-to-back start. It will also be the Maple Leafs’ third game in four nights.
And, if Kaskisuo’s job as backup mirrors Hutchinson’s, the new backup goalie will only start when he’s trying to hold the team in the second game of a back-to-back. I hope the team plays better in front of Kaskisuo than it did for most of the games it played in front of Hutchinson. Sure, Hutchinson let in some soft goals, but Tavares is right – it wasn’t always his fault.
In fact, it’s likely Kaskisuo will get a good amount of work as a backup goalie during the next six weeks because Toronto – a team that’s played five sets of back-to-back games already this season – will play five more back-to-back games before Dec. 31.
That’s Babcock’s way. He chooses to always play starter Andersen in the first game of each set of back-to-backs while his backup goalie (now Kaskisuo) gets the start in the second game. That won’t improve any goalies record, but it might be good for the team in the long run.
But all those small issues are lost on Kaskisuo, who’s anxious to make something of his chance in the NHL. As he noted: “Pretty crazy. The day (Monday) went in a blur (when he was told he would be joining the Leafs). Pretty happy day for myself and my family. It was crazy but really, really excited.”
Kaskisuo continued, offering a foretaste of what’s likely to come unless he’s absolutely stellar in goal, “All those little bumps in the road prepare you and make you mentally stronger and I feel like that is one of my strengths so far. I have been through a lot and have been thrown everywhere, so just trying to harness that and use it to my advantage.”
Good luck. Unless the team improves its play, Kaskisuo might be getting much stronger sooner than he hopes.
The Long-term Desire to Save Andersen
I understand Babcock’s logic. And he admits the difficulty of it for his backup goalie. As he said earlier in the season, “Obviously there’s a reason why teams aren’t as good in the second game. But they’re on your schedule, so what are you going to do about it? We just happen to be unfortunate because we’ve had four in October.”
Babcock makes this choice on purpose. He knows the second goalie has a smaller chance of winning the second game of a back-to-back than the goalie of the first back-to-back game. When he makes this choice, Babcock is being a wise tactician. Specifically, he’s not only engaging in load management but he’s protecting Andersen from the psychological stress of losing.
Babcock is thinking team first and individuals second; and, if he has to sacrifice a backup goalie’s record for the greater good, so be it. He’s preparing the Maple Leafs for the playoffs, where the team will ride Andersen the entire way. And, it can’t hurt when your number one goalie enters the playoffs with confidence.
Kaskisuo’s Record with the Marlies
As a goalie, Kaskisuo’s been stellar with the Marlies this season. In his eight starts, his record is 6-1-1, with a 2.13 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage. If you only looked at Kaskisuo’s playoff record from last season, his strong 2019-20 season wouldn’t be that much of a surprise. It’s simply an extension of his play during the 2018-19 postseason when he helped lead the Marlies through a deep, and almost successful, Calder Cup Playoff run last spring.
However, during the 2018-19 regular season, in 30 games the Finnish goalie had a so so 12-9-5 record, with a 3.07 goals-against average and a .896 save percentage. His body of work has drastically improved, which isn’t always a surprise for goalies. NHL history is filled with goalies that didn’t grow into stardom until later in life: recent examples Dominik Hasek (30 years old when he started to play well with the Buffalo Sabres) and Tim Thomas (32 years old when he led the Boston Bruins) come to mind first.
Good Luck to Kaskisuo
I want to welcome Kaskisuo to the Maple Leafs roster and warn him to remember how tough it might be as a backup goalie for his new team. However, if this young Finn can win a game or two to support starter Andersen and the rest of the team, there’s a chance that he’ll soon become a fan favorite. One can only hope.