After sitting out as a healthy scratch for 20 straight games, Hutchinson returned to the lineup Mar. 28 and quickly blended back in to the Dallas blue line, looking like he never missed a contest.
With top defenders Stephane Robidas
and Trevor Daley
both sidelined with injuries, Hutchinson suited up for the season’s final eight games and, while logging more ice time than he had all year, performed impressively.
“It’s nice to be able to play again and feel like you’re part of the team contributing again in games,” Hutchinson said before the season finale.
“He’s a guy that plays the game smart, he plays with his experience,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said of Hutchinson. “He played for a while, sat out for a while and he jumped back in because of injuries and he’s played solid for us and that’s kind of the player we knew we had there.”
Hutchinson, who joined the Stars in a trade with Tampa Bay on Nov. 30 in exchange for prospect Lauri Tukonen, stepped into the lineup then and provided a steady, veteran presence as well as some offensive instincts and a heavy shot from the point. The team began its resurgence after a slow start following his acquisition, coincidence or not, and climbed back into the playoff picture before too many injuries late in the season became too much to overcome.
In 38 games overall with Dallas this year, Hutchinson, 29, recorded two goals and five points, registered a -4 plus/minus rating and compiled just 12 penalty minutes.
When the Stars recalled second-year blue liner Mark Fistric
from AHL Manitoba on Feb. 14, Hutchinson lost his spot in the lineup and began a difficult stretch where he sat out 20 games in a row, going six weeks without getting into a game.
It was a tough process, but the 6-foot-2, 199-pound Michigan State product kept working hard in practice and tried to remain positive.
“Obviously, not playing’s not good and everyone wants to play,” Hutchinson admitted, “but not feeling like part of the team and contributing as a whole, instead of just in practice and everything, I think is the hardest part (of sitting out).”
Hutchinson impressed his coach and teammates with his ability to step right back into the fast pace of a desperate playoff push and still perform with the necessary conditioning and intensity.
“He’s been solid, he’s been good,” fellow defenseman Darryl Sydor said of Hutchinson’s late-season play. “Obviously, it’s a tough situation when you’re not in the lineup for a long time, timing-wise and stuff like that. You can do everything you can in practice, but he stayed ready, he stayed in shape, and he jumped right back in.”
“It is tough to jump back in,” Tippett acknowledged, “but he plays an intelligent game so he finds situations where he doesn’t get himself into trouble, so that part of his game helps him. He’s been in this position a little bit before with other organizations, so it’s not new to him, and he’s jumped in and done a very good job for us.”
A native of Evanston, Ill., Hutchinson, who won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s Most Outstanding Defenseman while with Hartford last season, indicated that keeping himself mentally engaged in the games he was scratched helped him maintain his sharpness during such a long layoff.
“Just try to stay mentally in the games, watch the games when they’re going on and do everything you can off the ice to stay in shape and be ready,” Hutchinson said of his objectives while sitting out. “You can’t really stay in game shape, it’s hard - practice is one thing but game shape is completely different. Just as long as you’re mentally focused - I think after time, it’s more of a mental thing than physical.”
One thing that helped Hutchinson quickly get back in the flow was being paired up with second-year blueliner Nicklas Grossman. The 24-year-old Swede had formed a solid partnership with Fistric, but when Fistric suffered an upper body injury in the first period of Hutchinson’s first game back, the new pairing was born. Grossman and Hutchinson seemed to establish good chemistry together right away.
“We played together for a while before and we kind of got used to each other then,” Grossman said of earlier in the season. “So I think we just kind of took a couple of shifts and then we kind of got back into it. We play a little different than me and Fistric, there’s a little more puck play and try to make good plays instead of maybe bumping and grinding as much as I do when I play with Fisty. I think it’s worked good, I think he’s a good player.”
Hutchinson also appears to have thrived with the extra workload he took on down the stretch. After averaging 13:02 of ice time per game during his first 32 games this season (including two with Tampa Bay before the trade), Hutch logged 19:37 over the final eight contests.
In those games, he scored a goal and fired 22 shots on net, a significant chunk of the 58 he compiled the entire season.
“I think I’ve been able to play good minutes,” said Hutchinson, who played 36 games with Carolina during their Stanley Cup-winning season in 2005-06.
“He jumped in and we meshed right away,” Grossman said. “He did a good job - the first game it looked like he didn’t miss a beat, so I think he’s been playing well.”
Hutchinson has one more year left on his contract, so he will be back next season and ready to battle once again for his spot in the lineup. One thing he’s already proven, though, is that he can sit for long periods of time and still be very effective when his number is called, which is a very valuable attribute for a depth player.