If the Florida Panthers are in the market for a goaltender — and they are, according to reports — Dale Tallon might want to give the Winnipeg Jets a call.
The Jets hold the keys to the top goaltender without a job in the NHL this season. His name? Michael Hutchinson (a man feared by Chicago Blackhawks fans).
If one thing has become abundantly clear early in this current NHL season, it’s that organizational goaltender depth is something every team should be grooming.
Many teams have, or are currently, figuring out where they stand in this department. The Vegas Golden Knights have been hardest hit, so much so they had to use an emergency recall on a goaltender still trying to find his way in the Western Hockey League earlier year.
But the likes of Carey Price, Matt Murray and, most recently, Roberto Luongo, have given their respective teams no option but to look within (or claim Antti Niemi off waivers, which two of those three teams have done this year). The Canadiens found relief in Charlie Lindgren and Tristan Jarry has been a stud for the Penguins.
But Luongo’s injury might just force the Panthers in a different direction. James Reimer hasn’t been the model of consistency this season and has failed to take the starter’s reins in Florida and run with them. With Luongo on the shelf for the long-term and the fact that looking within isn’t likely to help in the Sunshine State, perhaps a phone call to Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff could help turn the Panthers’ fortunes.
Hutchinson has been on a tear with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, where he ranks first in save percentage with a whopping .951 and is second only to Toronto Marlies netminder Garret Sparks in goals-against average with a 1.73. In 11 games played, Hutchinson has lost just once in regulation and holds a 9-1-1 record and his rich vein of form earned him AHL’s goalie of the month honours for November.
Hutchinson has played so well that when Steve Mason went down with a concussion last month, there was a low chance that Hutchinson would be recalled. He simply wouldn’t clear waivers when Mason makes his eventual return and the Jets would be out an asset that looks increasingly likely to garner a decent return.
‘Hutch’ certainly fits the Panthers’ criteria, suggested by TSN insider Bob McKenzie: He’s 27, a young netminder that comes with 99 games of NHL experience including some meaningful action when he helped the Jets secure a playoff spot during the 2014-15 season when Ondrej Pavelec went down with injury, winning 21 games in what was his coming out party.
Hutchinson has cooled off over the past two seasons, playing second fiddle to Pavelec in 2015-16 and then Connor Hellebuyck last season. When the Jets signed Steve Mason on the first day of free agency in July, it was all but assured that Hutchinson would start the season in the AHL and ride out the final year of his contract.
It’s become clear in Winnipeg that Hutchinson didn’t like being sent down. Most don’t. He has yet to give an interview to scribes this season.
But despite being upset, he’s handled it (mostly) the correct way: take it on the chin and go out and be a professional on the ice.
It could end up being the right fit at the right time for both parties. The Panthers need someone to steady the ship. Hutchinson, in the final year of a two-year contract, needs some NHL games to make his case for a spot on an NHL roster next season.
And the Panthers aren’t bringing Niemi back.
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck