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John Tavares didn’t hesitate on Tuesday.
When we asked the Maple Leafs captain whether the team had let down goaltender Michael Hutchinson , Tavares was quick to answer.
“Absolutely,” Tavares said after practice at the Ford Performance Centre. “I think we have to own that.
“We did not play very well and didn’t give him much of an opportunity to get some good results and feel better about himself.
“His work ethic, the type of teammate he is, and certainly the way he played, I think he made many key saves, gave us a chance to win many of the games he played in.
“We just never rewarded him. We should feel that for sure.”
The Leafs have a chance to make that right for the backup goalie, just not with Hutchinson in net. Winless in six games this season and sporting a save percentage of .879, Hutchinson was sent to the Toronto Marlies after clearing waivers on Tuesday.
Summoned from the Marlies was fellow goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo , who will assume the role Hutchinson had — starting the second game of back-to-back sets.
So here the Leafs are with a muddled backup picture, and it’s entirely of their own doing, whether you want to blame general manager Kyle Dubas , coach Mike Babcock or the players themselves. Lump them in together, just to be sure.
The Leafs started down this slippery path at the beginning of last season when they took a chance on Garret Sparks , putting Curtis McElhinney on waivers. McElhinney had done nothing wrong the previous season when he backed up Frederik Andersen , compiling a record of 11-5-1 with a .934 save percentage.
After Sparks was superb with the Marlies and was voted the American Hockey League’s goalie of the year in 2017-18, he got the job as the backup handed to him in camp over McElhinney.
The Carolina Hurricanes said thanks and claimed McElhinney, who had another solid season before signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Sparks’ most memorable moments with the Leafs came with his spoken thoughts and not his play, and he was banished before the end of the season before he was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights.
In the time since McElhinney got claimed, he has played in 38 games and gone 22-12-4; in that same span, Leafs backups (Sparks and Hutchinson) have played in 31 games and gone 10-16-2.
Andersen could use a break, not just the second game of back-to-back sets. But Babcock has not had confidence in the backup goalies Dubas has supplied to give them starts more often.
Now it’s on the shoulders of the 26-year-old Kaskisuo, who is likely to make his first National Hockey League start on Saturday in Pittsburgh against the Penguins, to make something of the role.
“Pretty crazy,” Kaskisuo, who will wear No. 50, said of getting to the NHL. “The day (Monday) went in a blur (when he was told he would be joining the Leafs). Pretty happy day for myself and my family. It was crazy, but really, really excited.
“All those little bumps in the road prepare you and make you mentally stronger and I feel like that is one of my strengths so far. I have been through a lot and have been thrown everywhere, so just trying to harness that and use it to my advantage.
“This is now a step up, so get to see a little different kind of shots in practice, but I’m just trying to get better every day and work hard and be ready.”
What went into the decision to make the goaltending change?
“We weren’t doing a very good job,” Babcock said. “Hutch is a good man, a good person and we didn’t play good enough.”
Hutchinson definitely could have been better, but the Leafs often didn’t have much interest in front of him.
Surely they will be inspired by their captain to provide a little more help for Kaskisuo.
Way down the list of Leafs news items on Tuesday — with the coming debut of Zach Hyman , reactions to the Don Cherry firing, Mitch Marner speaking about his injury and the backup goalie situation — was the impending return of Tavares to Long Island on Wednesday. No one has forgotten the rough ride Tavares got from Islanders fans in his returns last season. “The place will always have great meaning for me,” Tavares said. “It had a huge impact on my career and my life. Just go down there and try to get our team two points.” … Tavares on adapting to life without Marner: “When you are playing with different players, guys play different ways and have different tendencies. It’s just trying to have a feel for that and be predictable for one another, but be unpredictable for the opponent so you can create time and space, get opportunities in the middle of the ice and control the puck and have possession. I never played with a player with Mitch’s type of skill set.” And yes, Tavares should be able to drive the line without Marner’s presence. Tavares didn’t sign a seven-year contract worth $77-million US in the summer of 2018 to ride another player’s coattails.
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