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Carter Hutton has encountered setbacks at every stop of his hockey career. Maybe that’s why a starring role at age 35 on a team that is openly planning to bottom out doesn’t daunt the Coyotes’ newest starter.
“As you get a little bit older in this league, you just want a seat at the table,” Hutton said. “I have played against a lot of guys that have been really good players and then the next thing you know, they don’t have a job anymore. Especially as a goalie, the spots fill up fast.
“It’s different when you hold the cards and you’re one of the big dogs, but for me, I’ve always been a guy that’s kind of had to fight my way in, so truthfully, nothing really changes for me and the situation doesn’t matter. I just want an opportunity.”
That mindset was forged when Hutton didn’t make the Triple-A team in Thunder Bay, Ontario as a kid, thereby missing out on early attention from scouts and ending up in the Superior International Junior Hockey League. As a four-year letter winner at UMass Lowell, he never played in the NCAA Tournament and his team never finished higher than a tie for third place in the Hockey East standings.
No NHL team drafted Hutton, and despite finishing with the NCAA’s fourth-best goals against average and the third-best save percentage in his senior season, he had to settle for an amateur tryout agreement in 2010 with the Flyers’ AHL affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms.
After bouncing between minor-league teams, Hutton made his first NHL start for the Blackhawks on April 27, 2013 against the Blues. Chicago won the Stanley Cup that spring, and although he got a ring, Hutton did not qualify to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, and he was left out of the team picture.
After languishing behind workhorse Pekka Rinne for three seasons in Nashville, Hutton got his big break as a backup to Jake Allen in St. Louis. In 32 games of the 2017-18 season, he posted career-best marks in goals against average (2.09) and save percentage (.931), earning a three-year $8.25 million contract with the Sabres.
As is often the case in Buffalo, things went south from there. In his final season with the Sabres, Hutton posted a career-worst 3.47 GAA and a career-worst .886 save percentage in 13 games. Then fate added injury to insult. Hutton sustained an ankle injury on March 22 at Madison Square Garden that ended his season.
“I think I got away from some of the things that make me a really good goalie; I got a little too busy,” Hutton said of his Sabres experience. “I think I just put a little too much pressure on myself to try to come in and change the whole thing. We were playing without as much structure so I started doing things like trying to make saves on that backdoor pass before the backdoor pass happened. It’s hard to do that in this league where things are moving so fast.
“Obviously, it’s never good timing to get hurt, but especially at the end of a contract year. I kind of knew that I was not going to be as touted or sought after as I was in my last free agency. It’s a bit humbling of course, but at the same time I think that lit a little bit of a fire under me.”
When Hutton became a free agent this summer, his options were limited. His recent body of work was concerning, his age was concerning, and the salary cap was stagnant.
“My agent, Jordan Neumann, called everybody once or twice,” Hutton said. “Arizona kind of came into the mix later and it was kind of a no-brainer. It just seemed like the best opportunity for me to get a chance to play and be a part of where (GM) Bill (Armstrong) was headed with this. And let’s be honest, after three years in Buffalo we weren’t disappointed about not having snowsuits on our kids.”
When Armstrong offered Hutton a one-year contract for the league minimum of $750,000 on July 28, Darcy Kuemper was still a Coyote and Hutton was looking at a backup role. Hours later, Kuemper was off to Colorado and Armstrong addressed Hutton’s expanded role.
“He’s just a great human being that comes to the rink every day that just wants to compete,” said Armstrong, who was the Blues’ director of amateur scouting while Hutton was in St. Louis. “He’s someone for us that can steal games with his energy and just the way he plays.”
Joining the present-day Coyotes might seem like an odd choice for a guy trying to extend his NHL career, but in Arizona, Hutton found more familiar faces than Armstrong. He played under assistant coach Phil Housley in Buffalo when Housley was the Sabres’ head coach, and he worked with goalie coach Corey Schwab with the Sharks’ former AHL affiliate in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“Corey Schwab is a really good goalie coach,” said Blues goaltending coach Dave Alexander, who worked with Hutton during his career-best season. “Corey has been in the league for a long time, he has a really good track record in this league and goaltending has kind of been a staple in Arizona during his time there.
“I was a rookie in the NHL when I had Huts in St. Louis, but Corey has been around for a long time so there’s a lot of experience and a lot of wisdom for Huts to draw on.”
Hutton’s game has evolved over the years, and Alexander had a direct hand in that evolution.
“One of the things that’s misconstrued with goalies is when everyone talks about athleticism,” Alexander said. “I kind of chuckle a little bit when I hear that. They’re professional athletes. Of course they are athletic. I think what people really mean is compete level. When people talk about athleticism, they’re talking about goalies who break out of the technical box a little bit and they’re able to make some extraordinary saves and go the extra mile.
“With Huts, I would say his compete was one of the things that jumped off the page when I first came in. His intensity was another and his puck handling was exceptional. There’s some jam to his game. What we really worked on was just cleaning up his feet a little bit and just minimizing extra movement. I know it sounds simple, but in a league where you’re constantly in an exchange of time and space with the puck, the little tiny movements that your feet make are super important.”
Although he had a previous relationship with Hutton, Schwab watched plenty of film to understand where Hutton’s game was when he arrived in Arizona.
“There’s been a little bit of a shift in how goalies play, but to me, he is still more of a reactionary guy who has always had great hands but learned how to play a blocking style for different situations,” Schwab said. “It’s not his first instinct to play that way because he’s a very instinctive guy, reads the play really well, puts himself in position but likes to react and make saves.
“I went through the games that he played last year to get a sense of what went on, what changes we could possibly work on and from there it’s about having a discussion with him as far as, ‘Hey, how do you see this? What do you think was going on? What do you think about possibly doing something else?’”
Schwab has long understood the mental side of goaltending is just as important, if not more important than the technical side. Much of his early work with Hutton will focus on that aspect after a difficult run in Buffalo.
“Part of being a pro is improving from the experience that you’ve gained, no matter the situation,” Schwab said. “The team didn’t have a lot of success and I think when you’re in those types of situations when you don’t win, you don’t feel good about your game. You can play well, but you don’t feel great because at the end of the day, it’s about winning and winning builds confidence.
“He also had the injury and it’s always tough to finish your year with that, but fortunately for Carter, he’s had the summer to train and recover and refocus. From everything that I’ve seen, he’s come in with a good mind set and he’s good to go.”
Hutton doesn’t have a clear picture of his role or the amount of games he will play, but he believes that his past has prepared him for whatever comes his way. The Coyotes management and coaching staffs believe that Hutton will help forge the desired culture despite what will almost certainly be a challenging season.
“I’m not 25 anymore, but having those connections and people who understand who I am as a person and how much I care and how much I put into this obviously goes a long way,” said Hutton, who stopped 38 of 39 shots in a preseason win against the Kings on Tuesday. “When you’re young and coming into the league, you think about things like financial gains and what you can accomplish, and then you realize how unimportant that is; it’s more about friends and family and teammates and relationships.
“I am obviously grateful for the opportunity here, but at the same time, getting one year motivates you to prove yourself and prove a lot of people wrong. There’s been times when I stepped on that rink that I’ve convinced myself that I’m the best player in the world. You have to play with a little bit of arrogance and that’s what I’m going to try to do again.”