It was the spring of 2006, and the UMass-Lowell River Hawks, having just lost their sophomore goaltender to a school transfer, needed to find another netminder for the upcoming NCAA season. Then-River Hawks coach Blaise MacDonald was in a bind. “At that point,” MacDonald said, “the goalies that are available are available for a reason.”
MacDonald reached out to a former assistant coach from their time together at Niagara University. Jerry Forton told him about an unknown 20-year-old named Carter Hutton in the Superior International Junior League. The Northern Ontario-focused Jr. A loop wasn’t a big producer of college prospects. But MacDonald trusted Forton and liked what he heard: Hutton was athletic, passionate and could handle the puck. “So we took a flier on him and offered him a scholarship,” MacDonald said.
It was his only offer to play NCAA hockey. “I was a late bloomer,” Hutton said.
Today, he’s in the second season of a three-year, $8.25-million deal with the Buffalo Sabres. Through early November, his .928 save percentage ranked seventh in the NHL among goalies who had started at least half of their team’s games.
Hutton, 33, has spent the past seven years in the NHL. Two seasons ago, his .931 SP led the league. But way back when he was a teenager, the chances of Hutton ever advancing past the SIJHL appeared to be slim. He wasn’t, quite frankly, very good. “I was going to be a machinist or a millwright, that was my plan,” he said.
Hutton, who was studying for his two-year mechanical engineering degree, hadn’t thought much about playing college hockey. After all, he had struggled mightily early in his Jr. A career. In his first season, he posted ghastly numbers – including a 5.40 goals-against average and .876 SP – backstopping the K&A First Nations Golden Hawks of the SIJHL. Then Hutton’s career took off when he moved to the Fort William North Stars, another SIJHL club, midway through the following season. In 46 games over his final season-and-a-half, he compiled a stunning 43-1-0 record. “I kind of started to get better and better,” Hutton said.
Uh, just a little.
In 2005-06, Hutton went an incredible 33-1-0 with a 1.84 GAA, .926 SP and league-record 10 shutouts, leading Fort William to a league title. His dazzling play caught Forton’s eye at the Royal Bank Cup, Canada’s national Jr. A championship tournament. Forton got on the phone to MacDonald. “It was kind of a long shot, for sure,” said Hutton of earning a scholarship. “I never really thought about that, and then all of sudden, it worked out for me.”
Hutton was 20 when he went to UMass-Lowell and spent four years there, graduating at 24. “He was a culture-changer,” MacDonald said. “He struck a nice balance between having fun, bringing joy, but competing and being serious at the same time. That’s a unique thing.”
Hutton still possesses those qualities. He’s a mature leader by example. He’s the oldest member of the Sabres by a couple years over right winger Kyle Okposo and at least four years over everyone else. “His work ethic is second to none,” Okposo said. “He’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind, for sure. I really respect that.”
Hutton’s pro career started slowly. After signing as a free agent with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, he dressed for an NHL game shortly after his fourth year at UMass-Lowell. “I was never really anybody’s baby, right?” Hutton said. “No one ever was really ever protecting me. I was always just a filler. I just kind of kept grinding it out.”
Hutton spent most of his first three pro seasons in the AHL. He even got demoted to the ECHL in 2011-12, playing 14 games for the Toledo Walleye. “Kind of like a rude awakening,” he said.
Still, finding jobs was never a problem. “There’s always been work in the sense of being reliable and being a good teammate and being a guy that teams can bring in to trust,” Hutton said.
As he bounced around, he kept getting better. In 2012-13, an injury to Alexander Salak led to an opening in AHL Rockford. Hutton played 51 games for the Ice Hogs, the Chicago Blackhawks’ top affiliate, earning the trust of coach Ted Dent. “I was a workhorse, and it springboarded my career,” Hutton said.
He made his big-league debut on April 27, 2013, with the Blackhawks. Hutton was 27 and his time in the minors was finally coming to an end. He signed with the Nashville Predators in July 2013 and enjoyed a three-year stint as Pekka Rinne’s backup. Following two seasons with the St. Louis Blues, he landed in Buffalo, where he took over the starting job and played a career-high 50 games in 2018-19. “He’s had nothing handed to him,” Okposo said. “When you have a background like that, it puts a chip on your shoulder, and it’s just like you’re always going to have that (attitude), ‘I’m going to outwork you. That’s how I’m going to be good.’ ”
Silliest Sabre has skill, too
Kyle Okposo thought about the question and then started laughing.
What is it about backup goalie Linus Ullmark that makes him smile? “He’s a bit goofy,” said a grinning Okposo of his Buffalo Sabres teammate.
Ullmark’s penchant for saying interesting things has earned him a reputation as perhaps the quirkiest player on the Sabres. “He’s kind of a goofball, I think you can tell that from his interviews,” said Carter Hutton last season. “He’s quirky in that sense, but he’s such a great guy.”
The affable Ullmark, 26, can even elicit laughter on the ice. Okposo explained how the Swede “likes to windmill guys” in practice. “It’s funny,” Okposo said. “Going down, he gives a little flash of the leather, and everybody just laughs. He likes the flair a little bit.”
But make no mistake, Ullmark deserves his place on the team. He’s not merely a jester. He takes his craft seriously and has earned his teammates’ respect. “He’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind,” Okposo said.
Ullmark, a sixth-round draft pick in 2012, beat long odds to crack the NHL. At home in tiny Lugnvik, Sweden, a village of fewer than 400 people, he played goalie and forward until he was 15. Why did he choose the net? “I was way better,” he said.
Swedish teenagers can enter a three-year hockey program after high school. All of them rejected Ullmark. But an opportunity arose in 2011 when he received an invitation from Modo after one of their goalies left. “My dream was to always play for Modo when I was young, so it was kind of a huge deal for me,” Ullmark said.
By 2013-14, he had morphed into his country’s premier puckstopper, earning the Swedish League’s Goalie of the Year award.
Ullmark has served as Hutton’s backup since graduating to the Sabres last season following a three-year apprenticeship with AHL Rochester. But Okposo and others believe Ullmark possesses the upside to develop into a No. 1 netminder someday. “It’s crazy how talented he is,” Okposo said. “He’s got the perfect role model with Hutton to combine that talent with his work ethic. He’s going to be a starter.”
Ullmark’s athleticism helps him showcase what he describes as a “fluid” style. He doesn’t like to repeat the same moves and he’ll do anything to make a save. In 2017, he even started utilizing his head to redirect pucks. “I just try to play the situation to what I think suits it the best,” Ullmark said. “That way I keep myself honest, and it’s harder to really know what I’m going to be doing."