Carter Hutton dominated the NHL during the middle of the year when fellow goalie Jake Allen went into one of his notorious slumps. Hutton became the go-to starter for the St. Louis Blues and didn’t disappoint. Between the start of January and the end of February, Hutton went 10-4-2, with a .927 save percentage and 1.88 goals-against average. His stat line was very impressive and the hype around his continued to build. The two-month stretch ultimately earned him a contract with the Buffalo Sabres, announced on July 1st.
That’s right, the Sabres signed career-backup Hutton. The two sides agreed to a three-year deal, with a cap hit of $2.75 million a year. Hutton is going into Buffalo with the unofficial title of ‘Starting Goalie’. He’ll likely be backed up by 25-year-old goaltender Linus Ullmark.
There’s no denying Hutton’s numbers last year. He had the highest save percentage (.931) and lowest goals-against average (2.09) in the league. In a year where Allen was notoriously bad for the Blues, Hutton was very reliable.
The Blues signed Hutton in 2016 to back up Allen, who had been their starter since 2014. Hutton’s contract was supposed to last just long enough to prepare top goalie prospect Ville Husso for the NHL. Husso moved from Finland to America in the 2016 summer, preparing to play in his first AHL season. He was a big name coming to North America, after going 25-8-6 in Finland’s top league in 2015-16. When the Blues signed Hutton, they had the intention of simply signing a place-holder until Husso could fill his spot.
That role was perfectly in place during Hutton’s first year in St. Louis. He went 13-8-2 in 2016-17, with a mediocre save percentage and goals-against average. All across the board, he was a perfect backup goalie.
This changed last year. Hutton was on track to have another year as the ideal backup, but that had to change when Allen went into one of his yearly slumps. In the month of December, Allen went 5-6-1. This included a stretch between December 12th and January 1st, the height of his slump, when Allen went 1-7-0. He had a 2.86 goals-against-average and a save percentage of .907. His performance was abysmal, to say the least. This all came when the Blues were desperate for wins as they chased a Western Conference Wild Card.
As a result of the slump, the Blues had Hutton step up into the starting role. The team actually left Allen in St. Louis during a road-trip in mid-January, showing that the team had fully invested in Hutton as their number-one. That trust paid off very well. For the second half of the year, Hutton was the team’s starting goalie. He played a major role in getting the Blues within one win of the Wild-Card.
Future with Buffalo
With all of that said, it makes sense why the Sabres signed Hutton. He was under a lot of pressure to fill Allen’s shoes and did a great job of it. However, it was the first time being put into a starting role for the 32-year-old since the 2013-14 season. He’s played 20 games since January 1, which isn’t enough to assimilate a player back into a starting role. For a team like Buffalo, who was looking for a replacement for Robin Lehner, Hutton is a terrible signing. Instead of bringing in a player like Cam Ward or Petr Mrazek, who were both free agents this summer, they brought in a player who has spent less than half a year as a starter in the last four seasons.
Last Time as a Starter
To get a good look a Hutton’s last time as a starting goalie, we have to look back at when the Nashville Predators still had Shea Weber and Barry Trotz. The 2013-14 season had one of the worst endings for the Predators in recent history after star goalie Pekka Rinne was only able to play 24 games. In this situation, Hutton again stepped into the starting role to fill the hole the star goalie’s absence made. He started in 34 games and played in 40 total. This ranked him among four other goalies, in term of games played, including Kari Lehtonen and Ben Scrivens. Out of those goalies, Hutton managed the best record (20-11-1) and the best goals-against average (2.62). With that said, 25 other goalies started more games than Hutton. He only played in nine more games than the platoon-goalie, Brian Elliott, who set a much better stat line.
The Real Issue in Buffalo
With all of that said, Hutton has done well in his opportunities as a starter. While there is some notable inexperience, it’s not Ludacris for a team to think he’d be a worth-while starting goalie. That is every team except for Buffalo. Signing an uncertain starter like Hutton is a terrible move for Buffalo, who has arguably the worst defence in the league. Last year, the Sabres allowed 280 goals against, a number only two teams were able to top. The team put Robin Lehner in a very precarious situation, that ultimately resulted in the worst season of his career. He went 14-26-9 as the Sabres raced to finish last in their division.
This isn’t Lehner’s fault. No, he’s not an All-Star goalie, but he’s a decent player that can hold his own. What brought him down was the team’s awful defence. Looking at defensive stats, Marco Scandella stood out as the team’s best defenseman by a substantial margin. His defensive point shares, a stat that looks at points contributed based off of defence, was 4.0. This was the highest on the Sabres. Second in line was Rasmus Ristolainen, a young defenseman who totalled 3.3 DPS.
So let’s look at Scandella’s stat line. As the best defenseman on the Sabres, the team only had the puck 47 percent of the time while he was on the ice. So despite his great efforts on defence, he wasn’t able to get possession for team even half of the time he was on the ice. Ristolainen couldn’t either. He tallied a Corsi-For of only 48.5 percent.
That means, between the team’s top two defensemen, neither of them were able to control the puck. More often than not, the other team had the puck and were hammering shots at Lehner. This reflects in Buffalo’s shots-against totals from last season. They ranked tenth in the league in shots against. They also had the third worse penalty kill, allowing ten goals against, which just goes to further show their weakness on defence.
With all these issues, the team has made virtually no changes to their defence, save for the addition of top prospect Rasmus Dahlin. Dahlin’s biggest weakness coming into the league, though, is his consistency on defense. He’s an offensive mastermind, but his defense is yet to be tested. That only adds issues to the team’s already struggling blue line. Combining all of this with a new, inexperienced starting goalie is not going to end well.
The Sabres are also expected to graduate Brendan Guhle to a full-time role with the club. He played 18 games with the Sabres last season. His possession numbers were good, in limited minutes, with a 51.0 percent Corsi-For and a +4.3 relative Corsi. However, the rookie was given heavy offensive zone starts and faced third and fourth line competition. Dahlin and Guhle are excellent prospects, but they will not turn around the team’s weak defensive game overnight.
The team also added Matt Hunwick in the Conor Sheary trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Hunwick appeared in just 42 games for the Penguins last year, and was often a healthy scratch. His Corsi-For was 48.7 percent, while his relative Corsi was -4.4.
Hutton is not a bad goaltender. He has stepped up in big moments repeatedly in his career and proved to be one of the better purely-backup goalies the NHL has to offer. That trait doesn’t translate into a great starter, though. He’s only played 20 games as a starting goalie in the last four years if we’re being generous. Combining that with a young goalie, who has only played in 26 (9-13-2) NHL games, is asking for disaster.
Buffalo made a lot of moves to improve their offence this summer, including bringing in Jeff Skinner and promoting Casey Mittelstadt to a day-to-day role. They could have one of the better offences in the league but are negating it all by not padding their back end. Until they are able to bring in better goaltending, and much better defence, Buffalo isn’t a Stanley Cup Playoff team.
Main Photo: ST. LOUIS, MO – NOVEMBER 11: Carter Hutton #40 of the St. Louis Blues makes a save against the New York Islanders at Scottrade Center on November 11, 2017 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/NHLI via Getty Images)
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