THUNDER BAY -- Carter Hutton expected he’d have to learn on the job last season. He wasn’t expecting a trial by fire.
Signed by the Nashville Predators and handed the NHL team’s backup goaltending job, the Thunder Bay native was thrust into a starting role early in the season when all-star Pekka Rinne went down with a hip injury and was sidelined for much of the season.
Like any first-year netminder, Hutton had his ups and downs in the spotlight.
While he finished with a more-than-respectable 20-11-4 record, a .910 save percentage and a 2.62 goals against average – all starter-worthy numbers – there were plenty of bumps along the ice.
Most notably he was called out very publicly by then coach Barry Trotz, who essentially said Hutton wasn’t ready for prime time and was not an NHL caliber goaltender following a 2-1 loss to Carolina last January.
Hutton, who turns 29 in December, says he tried to take it in stride.
“It’s one of those things that was definitely tough to handle at that point in my career. Maybe we didn’t really see eye-to-eye on what he thought and what I thought,” Hutton said, nearly two months after re-signing with Nashville, inking a two-year, $1.45-million contract.
“It was a tough 2-1 loss and I took the brunt of it. But he was a frustrated coach and there was a lot of pressure on him. And I understand the situation. Barry and I were able to sort out our problems and for the rest of the year I played a lot of minutes for him in a lot of big games. He’ll always be my first coach that gave me a legitimate shot in the NHL.”
The Predators fell short in their playoff push, though no one could lay the blame on Hutton, who won his final five starts, including a 3-0 whitewashing of the San Jose Sharks, a team that once owned his rights. It was his first NHL shutout and showed once and for all he belonged.
Not that he doubted himself.
Still, Hutton only expected to play about 25 games in a backup role to Rinne and said it was tough seeing his teammate go down, the Predators in the thick of an intense playoff hunt that ultimately fell three points short.
“But at the same time, I understood it was going to mean a lot more weight on my shoulders. It’s one of those things that allowed me to continue to grow as a player,” said Hutton, just the second former Superior International Junior Hockey League player to make it to the NHL. “It was my first real experience of getting a lot of minutes in the league.”
On a night-by-night basis the opportunity became all about developing his game, building up his quickness between the pipes and finding ways to improve.
He first battled Marek Mazanec and later Devan Dubnyk – who arrived via a trade with Edmonton – for the starter’s job while Rinne was down, but despite his initial differences with Trotz, remained the back-up when the starter returned.
Obviously the Predators saw something they liked down the stretch.
Hutton said the feeling was mutual, one of the main reasons he chose to come back. The extra year on the contract was also an incentive, given the number of goalies on the market when free agency opened on July 1.
“I really enjoyed Nashville. This year I was unrestricted. Free agency was definitely an option at one point, but I definitely wanted to stay in Nashville, and they showed me that right away,” he said.
Still, even with a contract in hand, he’s not taking anything for granted when training camp rolls around.
There’s a new coach in town, Peter Laviolette, and he knows he’s probably got to prove himself all over again.
“No, you never do. I’ve been in too many different situations. A two-year deal is great, but at the same time I’ve got to play for my life every night.”
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