When the Toronto Maple Leafs traded for Michael Hutchinson, it was for goaltending depth only. But the newly-acquired goaltender for the Maple Leafs made his third consecutive start in net on Monday night against the Nashville Predators. He lost 5-0, as his Maple Leaf teammates were overwhelmed by the Predators.
In Hutchinson’s first start, he held his team in a game they eventually lost. In his second start, he whitewashed the Vancouver Canucks 5-0. In his third start, the sky fell in. That outing aside, his play in net has been strong enough that many have asked if he could be a threat to unseat Garret Sparks as the backup to starter Frederik Andersen.
Before Andersen’s injury, Sparks had done a good enough job in net as a backup. His record was 6-2-1, and that is certainly strong enough for a backup goalie. But Hutchinson has somehow generated excitement with the Maple Leaf fans in ways Sparks hasn’t. Perhaps it’s because Hutchinson’s a home-town “guy,” growing up in Barrie, ON., only about an hour’s drive away. Sparks? From far away Elmhurst, IL. Such things matter to Maple Leaf fans.
It’s probably fair to say that Hutchinson’s play in the Maple Leafs’ net has been a bit surprising. His body of work this year with the Florida Panthers really wasn’t strong. In four games, he recorded a 4.17 GAA and .839 save percentage. Sparks’ 6-2-1 record, 3.00 GAA, and .905 save percentage over his 10 2018-19 starts is actually good given the wheeling-and-dealing nature of the Maple Leafs’ offense and the team's less-than-stellar defense.
Comparing Sparks to Hutchinson in other areas doesn’t suggest much difference between the goalies. Prior to this season, Sparks beat out Curtis McElhinney to be Andersen's backup. However, McElhinney is 35-years-old and Sparks, by comparison, is only 25. Hutchinson, at 28-years-old, isn’t that much older.
Salary-wise, Hutchinson’s base is $1.3 million this season, and he will become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Sparks’ salary is only $700,000, and he will become a restricted free agent at the conclusion of the campaign.
Experience-wise, Hutchinson has the edge. He has played 108 games (starting 92). Sparks has played only 27 games (starting 26). Hutchinson also was “The Man” during the 2014-15 with the Winnipeg Jets, and was successful in that role. His record that season was 21-10-5 in 36 starts, with a .914 save percentage and 2.38 GAA.
Where Hutchinson stands with the Maple Leafs is still in question; however, his play in net so far, at least, sets him up for more work in the future somewhere, if not in Toronto.
Where does that leave the Maple Leafs’ backup situation? The answer is probably right where it was before Hutchinson was parachuted into the nets for the three games he has played. Hutchinson gets the start against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, and perhaps his play in that game will provide more insight about where he stands in competition with Sparks for the backup role.
But, we're thinking nothing will change. Andersen will remain the starter, and Sparks will remain the backup to Andersen when he returns from his concussion protocol.