With only one game of NHL experience prior to this season, Carter Hutton now holds the reins for the Nashville Predators as their No. 1 goalie for the next few weeks, as stalwart Pekka Rinne, the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, will be out for at least four weeks with an infection in the hip he had surgically repaired during the offseason.
Hutton, who will be 28 in a month in a half, is described by Predators goaltending coach Mitch Korn as a late-bloomer, having built his resume in the NCAA and the American Hockey League before Nashville signed him as a free agent in July to be the team's backup.
To date Hutton has been excellent, going 2-1-0 with a 2.42 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. Hutton takes over at a juncture that could prove critical for the Predators, who with their game Thursday at the Phoenix Coyotes start a seven-game, 17-day road trip two points out of fourth place in the Central Division.
Korn said the Predators flew Hutton in during the League's discussion period prior to the start of free agency last summer, and after Hutton's interview, he was sold. Korn said it was easy to convince coach Barry Trotz and general manager David Poile that Hutton was ready to play 15 to 25 games as Rinne's backup.
"Knock on wood we've had pretty good track records," said Korn, who has helped the organization develop Mike Dunham, Tomas Vokoun, Chris Mason, Dan Ellis and Rinne; in fact, only eight goaltenders ever have played for the Predators in their 15-year history. "Everybody's bought in pretty quickly. When we were looking for a second goalie, the (free agent) pool wasn't real deep. The majority of the pool were older guys whose best days were probably behind them and we made the decision based on what the results were last season that we didn't want to go in that direction if we could help it.
"And our organization's always been about opportunity and the whole thing materialized. It reminded me very much like the process we went through when we signed Dan Ellis."
When the Predators signed Ellis to back up Mason in 2007, he also had one game of NHL experience -- and that came during the 2003-04 season. To that point he was a career AHL goalie. Ellis eventually wrested the No. 1 job from Mason and filled that role during the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs, posting a .938 save percentage in losing a six-game series to the Presidents' Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings.
Hutton has followed a similar path to Ellis. As recently as the 2011-12 season Hutton, who shares a surname with that of a hotel near Vanderbilt University in Nashville, played 14 games in the ECHL for the Toledo Walleye. Now, for the time being, he will start for an NHL team.
"I guess I've taken a different path than most," he said. "But at the same time even when I was down there [in the ECHL], I was pretty confident in myself that I knew I could be a successful American League goalie and I knew that I continue to get better and keep developing. … I guess I wasn't happy about being there but it was part of my development, it was good for me. I went down there, I played a lot of games, it kind of spring-boarded me into my season in [AHL] Rockford … that time in the [ECHL] I can never take back, it was very valuable to me. I think I learned a lot playing there."
A native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Hutton was at times called up to play on the same minor hockey teams as Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal, a fellow Thunder Bay native who is a year older. Hutton said he knew nothing of NCAA hockey until he was offered a scholarship by the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, the same program that produced Hurricanes defenseman Ron Hainsey but one that hardly is a national powerhouse.
Hutton played four seasons for the River Hawks, posting GAAs of 2.06 and 2.04 in his final two seasons and earning all-Hockey East honors in 2010. He never was drafted, so after college Hutton went to the AHL, with stints in Adirondack and Worcester.
He spent the previous two seasons with Rockford, the Chicago Blackhawks' top affiliate, and won a combined 48 games. He caught the eye of Korn, especially when he was watching Rockford's games against the Milwaukee Admirals, Nashville's AHL affiliate.
"I think he's a battler," Korn said. "He's feisty. He's fearless. He's competitive and he's got a really good learning curve. Not only does he have a good learning curve but he has a learning curve that he wants to fuel. Some guys -- we've all met them -- are resistant to change. He hasn't been one bit."
It's common for goalies to be late-bloomers. Two-time Vezina winner Tim Thomas, also an NCAA product, was 32 before he played the majority of his team's NHL games for the first time in in 2006-07 with the Boston Bruins, having had to prove himself in Europe first. Korn said the average NHL goalie gets his chance as a result of an injury to another goalie. He cited the Calgary Flames' trade for Miikka Kiprusoff when Roman Turek went down early in 2003-04, a season that ended with Kiprusoff taking the Flames to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. The same dynamic occurred in Nashville with Vokoun beating out Dunham in 2002-03.
Hutton appears equipped to take on the new challenge, which he calls exciting. However, he also said the change has proved a whirlwind.
"When I wasn't playing I really tried to set myself up good to play well in those games, especially when [Rinne] was playing all the time and I was just practicing," he said. "I was really managing my practice and setting myself up for the games. The last couple of years I played a lot of minutes in the American League so it had been a different role, not playing as much, so I had to learn to get the most I could out of practices, treat them like a game. Then when I went in, maybe, just more experience. I hadn't played a lot at the NHL level but I was pretty calm and just ready to play and focused and things went well the first couple of games."
When the Predators return from their 17-day trip, their first home game will be against the Blackhawks, Hutton's former team and the one with which he made his NHL debut with in April. He said he has good friends on the Blackhawks, including Brandon Bollig, who was his roommate.
It's a game he's looking forward to, but more than that, he's looking forward to his chance to play. He realizes more pressure is on him now but said goalies always have pressure on them when they play.
"It's what you always want," he said of his opportunity. "You want to be called upon to be the guy."
Author: John Manasso | NHL.com Correspondent