Michael Hutchinson

Which slow-starting Stanley Cup contender can turn it around?

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One month into the NHL season and there are a lot of things in the standings that are upside down.

Teams like Buffalo, Edmonton, and Vancouver that were expected to be in the basement are all near the top, while Stanley Cup contenders like Tampa Bay, Toronto, and San Jose have stumbled.

It is a long season and the early surprises still have to prove they have staying power, while the the disappointments have time to turn things around. We have seen the latter happen over the past few years with the 2019 St. Louis Blues and 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins overcoming brutal starts to win the Stanley Cup. Not every team is that lucky, and both of those examples needed to go undergo significant in-season changes to their roster and coaching staff to reach the top.

Is there a preseason contender off to a slow start this year capable of such a turnaround?

Let’s look at three of the big ones.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Confidence in a turnaround: Fairly high

The pressure is on for this team to do something significant this season and so far they are not really doing much to inspire confidence that this team will turn out any different than the past three. They can score a lot of goals, they give up a lot of goals, and as of Thursday have won just six of their first 14 games of the season. It is one of the worst 14-game stretches they have had over the past three years, being topped only by their 14-game stretch to end the 2018-19 season (when they won only four games down the stretch).

If you’re looking for a positive in Toronto it’s that for all of the struggles they have had so far there are signs that they can easily get this turned around.

For one, they are going to be getting John Tavares back soon. That’s a big add to the lineup.

And for as much as they have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net, a lot of that is related to the play of their goalies. They still have their share of flaws defensively, but they are the second-best shot attempt differential team in the league and while they still give up a lot of shot attempts, they have  cut that number down from where it was a year ago. The biggest issue is in goal where Frederik Andersen has not yet played up to his expected level and backup Michael Hutchinson has given them literally zero chance in the four games he has started.

There is reason to believe Andersen will be better based on his track record, and a backup goalie can be fixed with a trade. Better goaltending can fix a lot of these early problems.

Whether that is enough to get by the Boston Bruins or to actually do something in the playoffs remains to be seen. But they will be there and have the chance.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Confidence in a turnaround: High, but with some caution

Always bet on talent, and the Lightning are still the most talented team in the league on paper. That is the good news.

Here is my concern: Do you remember about a decade ago when the Washington Capitals were the best regular season team in the league every year, won the Presidents’ Trophy with 54 wins, and then got bounced in Round 1 by a No. 8 seed Montreal team that would have had no chance in beating them if not for a super-human goaltending performance from Jaroslav Halak? And then the Capitals responded by trying to fix themselves by changing what they did and the way they played only to self-sabotage themselves and take about two steps backwards?

I fear the Lightning have hit that phase.

It is not just the fact that they are not winning as regularly as they have that is concerning. It is the way they are playing. They are getting out-shot, out-attempted, out-chanced, and out-everything during 5-on-5 play. They have one of the worst shot attempt differentials in the league through 12 games and are simply not generating as much as they did a year ago. They are still scoring goals, but they are relying heavily on the power play to do it and not carrying play at even-strength. No one seems to be afraid of the team that put the fear of god into every opponent for 82 games just one year ago.

Is it a matter of simply working through some new ideas? A slow start with some needed adversity? Or a concerning trend that is maybe an overreaction to (an admittedly horrible) postseason defeat?

[Related: Lightning fighting through some early season adversity]

San Jose Sharks

Confidence in a turnaround: Not without a major change or two. 

The goaltending is still a major issue, but we already knew that. They also do not seem to have any interest in trying to fix it, something else that should have been obvious after the way last year unfolded.

But that is not the only thing broken here. The whole system seems broken. This has been, quite simply, the worst 5-on-5 team in the league this season by pretty much any objective measure you want to look at it. You want to look at underlying numbers like shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger chances, or expected goals? All among the worst in the league and down near the potential lottery teams.

You want to look at something more basic like simply goals for and against? Worst in the NHL at 5-on-5, getting outscored by a 37-19 margin. That is goals-for percentage of just 33 percent. The next worst team in the league in that category is Detroit at 40 percent (20 for, 29 against). There is no way to sugarcoat that, it is just bad with a capital B-A-D.

There was a point last year where the Blues were playing the right way, doing everything well defensively, and still losing because they couldn’t get a goalie to make a save. All they needed was somebody to solidify that position to turn things around. The Sharks still need that, too. But what’s even worse is that they also need the rest of the team to get its act straightened out as well.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Maple Leafs enter Marleau reunion in a tense state

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“Sometimes you gotta yell at your family,” is something you’d expect from Archie Bunker or some other disheveled sitcom dad, not Auston Matthews when he’s talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs. Yet that’s how Matthews explains his approach as the Maple Leafs have been soul-searching (and maybe screaming) amidst a troubling 5-4-2 start.

It feels a bit like the sort of mess that would get a teenager in trouble, so maybe it’s only fitting that Friday represents the return of “dad,” as Patrick Marleau and the San Jose Sharks will face the Maple Leafs in Toronto.

Marleau’s first game against the Maple Leafs since taking a circuitous route back to San Jose seems like as good a time as ever to dig deeper on Toronto’s troubles, and ponder Marleau’s hot start.

How dysfunctional is this Leafs family?

If the playoffs began before Friday’s games, the Maple Leafs would be on the outside looking in. It’s almost as troubling that other teams in the bubble could pass Toronto thanks to games in hand:

The Maple Leafs’ goals for (40) vs. against (39) categories segue smoothly into an explanation of how Toronto’s played so far in 2019-20: they’s scored a lot of goals, yet unfortunately have allowed almost as many.

Indeed, you can trot out a positive sign, and then quickly “Yeah, but …” away most points of optimism.

They’ve controlled the higher number of events by Corsi, Fenwick, and scoring chance measures at even-strength, but Natural Stat Trick’s measures indicate that they’ve allowed more high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 (80) than they’ve generated (72).

The Maple Leafs have, essentially, been what many people thought they were: a team trying to outscore its problems.

Where things can change

To some extent, the Maple Leafs might just need to live by the sword, and die by the sword. The key, then, is to stay sharp in areas where they can.

Most obviously, the Maple Leafs need to avoid the penalty box. While their power play hums along (25-percent success rate, eight PPG), they’ve allowed just as many power-play goals (eight), thanks to going on the PK 38 times versus only getting 32 power-play chances. Such discipline troubles are especially confounding being that the Maple Leafs have only played four of their first 11 games on the road (it’s human nature for home teams to get at least moderately favorable officiating, after all).

While every season is different, there’s justification to believe that the Maple Leafs can be smarter with their sticks. They were only shorthanded 204 times in 2018-19, the second-lowest total in the NHL.

Being on the PK less often should help their goalies to a degree, but either way, the Maple Leafs need more out of the likes of Frederik Andersen, Michael Hutchinson, and possibly others.

Honestly, the Leafs might not have a ton of hope getting more out of Hutchinson, yet Andersen’s capable of much better. To remind you of the warping effects of small sample sizes, consider the strange quirk that, so far this season, Andersen’s PK save percentage (.881) is slightly higher than his even-strength mark (.879). Considering that Andersen’s career even-strength save percentage is .923, you can expect improvement, even if this ends up being an off year.

Ultimately, the Maple Leafs need to optimize, even if they might see flaws. While Hockey Viz’s heat maps show promise on offense:

It’s clear that the defense needs tidying up:

Marleau riding high

The hacky instinct would be to look at Marleau’s hot scoring start (two goals, four assists for six points in six games), plus Toronto’s bumpy beginning, and argue that Toronto made a big mistake … or they miss his leadership, and so on.

It’s great to see Marleau back in teal, but the numbers are less flattering when you dig deeper. His possession stats are troubling, despite playing almost all of his even-strength shifts with strong linemates in Timo Meier and Logan Couture. You’d like not be that surprised that his shooting percentage (20, vs. 9.9 last season) and on-ice shooting percentage (17.9, vs. 8.5 for his career) both rank as unsustainable.

That’s not meant to degrade Marleau’s inspiring start, because it’s extremely cool. Frankly, the Sharks are weak enough on the wings that it makes perfect sense to bring back their old chum.

Just don’t buy in to potential narratives about the Maple Leafs being lost without Marleau.

Now, arguments about Toronto needing to find answers from a bigger picture sense? That’s a more compelling conversation, although I’d argue that it’s more about how deep the Maple Leafs can go in the playoffs, rather than whether or not they can make it at all.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

For the Florida Panthers, Michael Hutchinson could be the perfect fit

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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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Report: Jets bringing journeyman G Leggio to camp on PTO

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David Leggio, who’s spent time with the Sabres, Capitals, Islanders and Coyotes organizations, has reportedly accepted a professional tryout with the Winnipeg Jets, per Buffalo Hockey Beat.

It wasn’t long ago that Leggio, now 31, was a quality AHL netminder. He went 38-24-1 with Rochester during the ’12-13 campaign, compiling a 2.56 GAA and .924 save percentage, but struggled last year between Bridgeport and Portland, and failed to land a contract this summer.

Despite some good showings at the minor-league level, Leggio has also yet to play in an NHL contest.

In Winnipeg, he’ll have a decent shot of earning a new deal. Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson are projected to be the club’s No. 1 and No. 2 next season, but they’ll have to stave off the hard-charging Connor Hellebuyck, who played very well for Team USA at the 2015 World Hockey Championships and was recently named the NHL’s No. 1 goaltending prospect by In Goal Magazine.

Leggio should be in line for a backup gig in the American League, especially with veteran Peter Budaj having moved on.

Related: AHL changes rule following Leggio incident

Winnipeg Jets ’15-16 Outlook

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As crucial as it was to make the playoffs for the first time since returning to Winnipeg, the 2015-16 season is even bigger for the Jets.

After years of frustration, management’s slow-and-steady approach showed serious returns, but the franchise is heading toward multiple forks in the road.

Let’s consider some of the big factors ahead.

Contract years for key players – Hockey fans can debate whether Dustin Byfuglien’s the biggest name on the Jets or not, but he’s the earth-shaking wild card. Andrew Ladd is the gritty, stable winger who might just be the polar opposite. They’ve been immensely important players in Winnipeg, but what does the future hold?

Aging core –  It’s easy to look at 21-year-old Jacob Trouba and 22-year-old Mark Scheifele and picture a bright future, especially with a generally well-regarded farm system.

For all the future talk, it’s a make-or-break season for the current crop of key players. Byfuglien is 30, Ladd is 29, Blake Wheeler is 28 and Bryan Little is 27.

Those core players aren’t ancient, but management probably needs to see them win some playoff games (or even series) to justify keeping the band together.

Goalie question – To especially weary Winnipegers, Ondrej Pavelec’s contract probably feels endless, and it does still have two years remaining. Management is sticking with Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson, which is a short-term gamble. Are they any closer to making a decision that reaches a little further?

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The Jets have some big questions to answer next season, yet let’s not forget: Winnipeg hasn’t been home to an NHL team with this sort of potential for a long, long time.