Many things have changed for Michael Hutchinson since he last wore the pads for the Winnipeg Jets more than three years ago.
Yet, much remains the same for the 31-year-old journeyman goalie.
He's still the well-spoken, down-to-earth fellow that spent parts of five seasons in the Jets organization. Still training on and off the ice with a purpose. Still on standby for opportunities to shine.
"That first year with Winnipeg (2014-15) I got to play a lot of games in a row. Since then, it's been sporadic starts here and there, so you learn to keep yourself ready through practice," Hutchinson said, during a chat this week with the Free Press.
He's now in his second tour with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and could get the start at Bell MTS Place Friday night against the organization that ushered him into the NHL.
"Just a great group of guys, lots of fun. I really believe in our direction." – Michael Hutchinson
"My whole career I don't think anything's really come easy for me and I've had my shares of ups and downs, and you get kicked down a lot," added Hutchinson. "I don't think anyone's hockey career — when you really look at it — where everything in their NHL career goes smoothly the whole entire way. Everyone has challenges and adversity, but it comes from being a positive person and working hard and being a good teammate. That goes a long way."
Injured Leafs starter Frederik Andersen remains in Toronto as the North Division squad continues a four-game road trip. Jack Campbell isn't 100 per cent, either, but received the nod against the host Jets on Wednesday and made 26 saves in a 3-1 triumph.
Originally drafted by the Boston Bruins (third round, 77th overall) in the 2008 NHL Draft, Hutchinson finished a stellar Ontario junior career and then bounced between the American and East Coast leagues for four seasons before inking a deal with the Jets.
His big break came during the 2014-15 campaign when he filled in for injured No.1 Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec and went on to post a 21-10-5 record. But he'd win just 20 of 61 starts over the following three seasons, spending long stretches with the Manitoba Moose.
Hutchinson’s final time guarding the crease for the Jets came on March 13, 2018 at Bridgestone Arena, an eventual 3-1 defeat to the Nashville Predators.
Since then, he and his wife, Jenna, a Winnipegger, welcomed a daughter, Lilah, and are expecting their second child. The family makes its off-season home in the Manitoba capital.
"I really got to see Helly develop into the goalie he is today. He and I are really close, just a really good friendship, and it's great to see the success he's had." – Michael Hutchinson
On the ice, Hutchinson has definitely made the rounds, playing in Florida, Toronto and Colorado, including an exhilarating stretch during the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs in the Edmonton bubble. He had three starts for the Avalanche in their series with the Dallas Stars, including an overtime defeat in Game 7.
The product of Barrie, Ont., has been THE guy for only short periods, yet he's managed to stay relevant on the NHL's ever-changing landscape of lower-tier netminders.
"It's crazy when you think back on your hockey career, year to year. Looking back, it doesn't feel like that long ago I was playing for the Jets. But lots has happened in my career. I'm fortunate to join the Leafs again, an organization I really enjoyed being a part of," said Hutchinson, who is 3-2-1 with a 2.49 goals-against average and .915 save percentage this year.
"Just a great group of guys, lots of fun. I really believe in our direction."
Hutchinson had a front-row seat to the organization's transition from some intermittent "Pavelectricity" to the more stable era of Connor Hellebuyck, last year's Vezina Trophy winner as the league's best goalie.
Hutchinson and Hellebuyck have a definite kinship.
"I really got to see Helly develop into the goalie he is today. He and I are really close, just a really good friendship, and it's great to see the success he's had," said Hutchinson.
"He was at my wedding, and my wife and his girlfriend get along really well and support each other as the significant others of goalies, which is a life very few people understand, going through that stress of watching game to game."
Agreeing to rejoin Toronto on a two-year, two-way contract (carrying an NHL average annual value of US$725,000) was an easy decision, he said.
"As you get older, and realizing family is most important thing and hockey is secondary, having the AHL (the Marlies) and NHL in the same town is huge for me. If life away from the rink is stressful, wondering where you'll be — a different city or state every other weekend — then it's really hard to perform. Being in Toronto eliminated the stress and distractions," he said.
"To me, being on the radar and being in a Canadian market is the norm for me. I started my career in Winnipeg and have been in Toronto a little bit now. Only had a small taste of Florida when I was there, but it's been normal for me to play in Canada with that pressure."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).