Just as everyone expected, the Buffalo Sabres currently sit atop in the Atlantic Division. Things are looking bright for the franchise: there’s a hot new scorer on the loose in Victor Olofsson, Jack Eichel is as confident as ever and Rasmus Dahlin appears to be a strong Norris Trophy candidate out of the gate. But maybe more importantly, the goaltending has been spot-on.
It’s been a while since the Sabres had a legitimate No. 1 goalie. There have been flashes of brilliance from Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson over the past several seasons, but not since the Ryan Miller era has a Sabres goaltender given the team a fighting chance every season. Take last season, for instance: the Sabres were No. 1 in the NHL at one point in November, but goaltending became an issue and the Sabres began to crumble. And while Buffalo didn’t make any changes in goal for 2019-20, Carter Hutton, 33, looks as though he’s ready to erase all memory of his shaky play in the back half of last season.
Through five starts, Hutton has a perfect record, including consecutive shutouts against Dallas (25 saves) and Los Angeles (47), and he’s near the top of every goaltending category. At 5-on-5, his high-danger save percentage sits at .955, besting Darcy Kuemper’s second-place mark by .005. Hutton’s high-danger goals-against average sits at 0.24, once again good for first in the league in 5-on-5 play. His 0.97 GAA at five-a-side blows away the rest of the league, with Washington’s Ilya Samsonov sitting second with a 1.34 GAA. But perhaps the most important stat of all is his 5.25 goals-saved above average rating, which ranks second behind the Anaheim Ducks’ John Gibson (5.32) in the early going. Those are exceptional numbers for Hutton, even if it’s a small sample size.
Hutton, who made his name as a second-stringer with the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues, has had hot runs like this before in his NHL career. He had a five-game winning streak that nearly propelled the Predators to the playoffs in 2013-14, he lit the crease on fire for the Blues before his move to Buffalo and Hutton has even had such a run with the Sabres, most notably an eight-game winning streak last November.
But compare his numbers to last season at this point. Hutton was good, boasting a .920 SP through seven starts with a GSAA of minus-0.05. By the end of the season, however, Hutton’s .913 SP at 5-on-5 rivalled the likes of Malcolm Subban and Jonathan Bernier and a host of other NHL backups. His GSAA was a staggering minus-7.39, the third-worst among goalies with at least 45 starts. And during that aforementioned eight-game winning streak, Hutton’s 4.22 GSAA (10th between Nov. 7-27) and 1.92 SP (20th) at 5-on-5 suggest he was only average, winning games but not stymying the opposition. And given Hutton’s .923 SP at 5-on-5 is good for seventh among goalies with at least 130 starts since 2013-14 and his minus-14.53 GSAA is the fourth-worst under those parameters entering the season, it indicates that Hutton is playing well above his own historical averages right now.
Luckily, Hutton isn’t the sole option in Buffalo and the Sabres appear to have something of a dynamic duo in the blue paint right now. Though his numbers aren’t as brilliant as Hutton’s, Linus Ullmark has a .943 SP and 2.38 GSAA at 5-on-5, the latter good for 12th among goalies with at least four starts. Meanwhile, Hutton’s numbers are those an elite netminder at this point, so even mellowing out slightly wouldn’t be a great cause for concern for the Sabres.
The true tests are on the way for the Sabres. In November, Buffalo will square off against the Tampa Bay Lightning three times, Toronto Maple Leafs twice and have dates with each of the Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames, all of whom are among the NHL’s heavyweights. Can Hutton realistically stay this hot? To do so, he’ll have to buck some of his own career trends. But for the time being, Hutton is playing as well as he’s ever been.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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