Over the past 15 years, going back to his minor hockey days, Michael Hutchinson has been a Colt, Major, Crusher, Knight, Bruin, Royal, Jet, IceCap, Reign, Moose, Panther, Thunderbird, Maple Leaf, Marlie and now, Avalanche. Believe it or not, he was actually on one place for four years when he played three seasons for the Winnipeg Jets and another one for the Manitoba Moose.
Aside from that, it has been a nomadic lifestyle for Hutchinson, who finds himself in the unlikeliest of places at the unlikeliest of times. But, hey, it’s 2020 and in case you haven’t noticed, anything is possible, including the prospect of the Colorado Avalanche riding a career journeyman to the Western Conference final. Down 3-1 in their second-round series against the Dallas Stars and with No. 1 man Phillip Grubauer and backup Pavel Francouz unfit to play, the Avalanche sent out an SOS (Save Our Season) to a 30-year-old whose NHL playoff experience to that point had been the 9:21 and three saves he made in Game 4. Since then, Hutchinson has stopped 58 of 62 shots, stopping the ones he needed to behind an Avalanche team that has rallied around him and played some outstanding defensive hockey.
And now Hutchinson finds himself with an opportunity to beat the Stars one more time and help the Avalanche to the Western Conference final. Crazy stuff. In fact, Hutchinson couldn’t have put it any better than he did after stopping 27 of 28 Dallas shots in Colorado’s 4-1 win in Game 6. “This whole situation,” Hutchinson said, “in the bubble and everything going on is so absurd and surreal at the same time.”
Just how long the Avalanche can ride this out is anyone’s guess, but it should be noted that the 2010 Stanley Cup final featured a goaltending duel that consisted of Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton. And it’s not as though Hutchinson is a complete neophyte at the NHL. He’s played 127 career games, just no really big ones for any good teams until now. In fact, a lot of his resume is bereft of big-game experience, unless you include the legendary Ontario Blues summer team that went 49-0-1 over three seasons and featured the likes of Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Alex Pietrangelo and Michael Del Zotto. To have a chance like this would be one to be savored by any 30-year-old goalie, particularly one who wondered whether he’d ever get this kind of chance.
“My career has been a long journey,” Hutchinson said. “Been sent down and called up a bunch of times. There are always moments when you get sent down that you wonder if you’re going to play another NHL game. But those moments, you just put them behind you and enjoy playing hockey and have fun with it.”
And even though he has been playing cat-and-mouse with an NHL career since his days in Winnipeg, at least he has been able to make a decent living at playing hockey, even in the minors. NHL teams see the value in having a reliable third goalie they can call on for situations like, well, this one. That’s why Hutchinson has been on one-way deals since 2016-17 and has earned $4.3 million in the past four seasons, most recently $700,000 on a one-way deal he signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer. The money is nice, but every player wants to be in a situation where he can chase a Stanley Cup and play in meaningful games in the best league in the world. Nobody knows that better than Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, who slugged it out for 639 career regular-season and playoff games in three minor leagues without getting as much as a sniff of the NHL. (And the guy piled up 1,787 penalty minutes in those games. Holy smokes.) Bednar can appreciate what Hutchinson has endured and is happy for him.
“I love it,” Bednar said. “Not just for ‘Hutch’, but for all the guys who don’t have an easy path, but they want it and stick to it and they buy into their dreams and they invest in themselves to just continue to battle to try to play at the highest level they possibly can and eventually get a chance. I think there’s a value in those players because they appreciate what they have in playing in the best league in the world. It’s not an easy league to get to and it’s certainly not an easy league to stay in. I couldn’t be more happy for this guy. He’s a great person and a great teammate and it makes it easy to cheer for him.”
It’s also hard to come back and win a series after going in a 3-1 hole, particularly when you’re players are dropping like flies. But Hutchinson and the Avs find themselves with a chance to do just that. Hurt in Game 1, Grubauer is out indefinitely and Francouz is unfit to play. But what happens if and when one of them is healthy? At the craziest time in the craziest season, the Avs could have goaltending dilemma/controversy on their hands and wouldn’t that be wild? Yup, that’s 2020 for you.