When watching the Stanley Cup playoffs from his offseason home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Buffalo Sabres goalie Carter Hutton noticed a common thread among teams still playing in mid-May.
The high-powered offenses in Pittsburgh, Washington and Tampa Bay did not reach the second round, while teams with less high-end skill used their discipline without the puck to advance closer to the Cup final.
This was not a revelation for Hutton. The 33-year-old played behind such structure in 2017-18 with the St. Louis Blues, who are facing the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final. But the different perspective reminded Hutton why the Sabres buckled in the season's second half and gave him one specific topic to ask about when he called around asking about his new coach, Ralph Krueger.
Those conversations have Hutton brimming with optimism that history won't repeat itself.
"I kind of looked him up, truthfully, to try to figure out more about him," Hutton told The Buffalo News in a phone interview Thursday night. "From talking to people, everything is coming back in high regard. He comes with a long resume and pretty detailed. He’s a gifted man in a lot of different areas, so I think it’s going to be exciting for sure. It’s going to be a good change of pace."
Hutton is an example of how defensive structure can benefit a goaltender. He posted a career-high .931 save percentage in 32 games with the Blues last season, which earned him a three-year free-agent contract with the Sabres.
The change gave Hutton the opportunity to finally be a full-time starting goalie in the NHL, and he buoyed the Sabres with a .936 save percentage in eight appearances during the team's 10-game win streak from Nov. 8-27.
He and backup goalie Linus Ullmark bailed out the Sabres with remarkable saves on odd-man rushes and shots from the slot. Buffalo failed to adapt when teams around the league started to play tighter defense following the holiday break in December.
Rather than trying to grind out wins, the Sabres tried to outscore every opponent, while neither Hutton nor Ullmark could stop the seemingly growing number of high-danger scoring chances.
"After Christmas it seems to tighten up and I don’t think we did as well as we should have and I think we paid for it," Hutton said. "I think you watch these high-powered teams get knocked out -- Pittsburgh, Washington, Tampa -- by teams who play really, really sound defensive structure. Teams that defend hard. You need the skill, but you have to keep the puck out of your net and you need to play well defensively."
Hutton finished the season with a pedestrian .908 save percentage and 3.00 goals-against average in a career-high 50 games, while both goalies combined for a 5-on-5 save percentage of .915, which ranked 25th in the NHL.
Hutton faced at least 40 shots nine times, the sixth-highest total behind Toronto's Frederik Andersen and New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist (12), Ottawa's Craig Anderson (11), and Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck (10) and Anaheim's John Gibson (10). Hutton saw 35 to 39 shots on 11 occasions. He faced at least 40 shots only once in 32 games with the Blues last season.
While watching the playoffs, Hutton was reminded of the help he received in St. Louis. The Blues' starting goalie, 25-year-old rookie Jordan Binnington, is a Calder Trophy finalist after posting a .927 save percentage and 1.89 goals-against average while facing 40 or more shots twice in 32 games.
"I think playing with that structure presents a better opportunity for me personally and for the team to do well," Hutton, who could be the oldest player on the roster next season, said. "You’re always in games. It’s better to win those 2-1 games where you grind it out than to try to win 6-5 shootouts. I think it’s a lot more sustainable playing that way, knowing the consistency of defense is going to be there every night. From what you hear about Ralph, that seems to be what he wants, to create that D-zone structure but to still let guys play offensively."
Despite leading a rebuilding organization in a lockout-shortened season, Krueger was lauded for his ability to implement a defensive structure during his 48 games as coach of the Edmonton Oilers in 2012-13.
Though the Oilers allowed the second-most 5-on-5 shot attempts that season, their penalty kill ranked ninth in the league. He also was able to quickly install such a game plan as coach of Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, leading a roster of players from eight countries to the final against Canada.
During Krueger's introductory conference call with reporters Wednesday, he spoke of wanting to use the Sabres' speed in the offensive attack but also detailed how he and General Manager Jason Botterill agree that defensive structure is as important.
"I like the way Jason has been putting this group together and the way he thinks," Krueger said. "He understands the necessity of being strong with and without the puck and developing a team game that's dynamic and allows this core group of players to develop and show their skill, but at the same time find the discipline as a group to defend properly."
The Sabres struggled to do that under Phil Housley. Their man-on-man defensive-zone coverage failed throughout the season's second half. Even veteran players such as Jason Pominville would lose track of opponents, allowing too many quality shot attempts on Hutton and Ullmark.
There also were problems with puck management and clearing traffic from in front of the net. Upon hearing of Krueger's hiring, Hutton called Sabres assistant coach Steve Smith, who worked with Krueger for three seasons in Edmonton.
Hutton wanted to ask about defensive structure, the one quality he thought the Sabres needed in a head coach. Smith offered a glowing endorsement, detailing how Krueger was detail-oriented and helped develop young players in a defensive structure that did not stifle offensive creativity.
Hutton also spoke to a mutual friend of many players from Krueger's one season as coach and learned about the latter's impact on future Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall, who recorded 50 points as a 21-year-old that season.
Botterill is hoping Krueger can help further the development of core players Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt. Krueger has yet to meet the players, though he will speak to Eichel and Reinhart next week in Slovakia, where the IIHF World Championship is being held.
Krueger also texted many of the Sabres' players to introduce himself and express excitement. Hutton shared the same emotion.
"I think it’s great we have someone coming in who is going to be full-steam ahead and want to help our team improve," Hutton said. "It will be an exciting time and an interesting time. In a lot of ways, it can be a kick start and something to look forward to."