By Brandon M. Bickerstaff
BILOXI, Miss. – Jeff Hutchins had planned on having a big season at left wing for the Mississippi Sea Wolves, but he never imagined it would be like this.
Last week, the 6-0 and 205-pound Toronto native became the only Sea Wolves player selected to this year’s ECHL All-Star game to be played in Reading, Pa., on Jan. 26.
With the loss of several scoring weapons from a year ago, including forwards Steffon Walby and Brent Gauvreau, Hutchins was charged by his coach Bob Woods with stepping up his game and taking on more of a leadership role. He has responded so far, leading the team in goals (17), plus-minus rating (plus-12) and power-play goals (6); including the Sea Wolves’ only score in a 1-0 victory at Texas last week.
Hutchins has also been one of the hottest scorers for the Sea Wolves recently, posting 13 points, including five goals, in the last eight games.
Though long regarded by others as a dangerous scorer and fierce competitor, Hutchins said he still finds this season’s success hard to believe.
“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Hutchins said of his All-Star selection. “I was shocked, but real honored. I’m happy we’re going to be sending somebody to the All-Star game.”
Hutchins’ play has been no surprise to Woods, who knew the team would need Hutchins’ scoring and leadership to fill the void left by the departure of the Sea Wolves’ former stalwarts.
“Hutchins has been a leader for us,” Woods said. “He’s taken care of business on the ice, doing what we expected and more. He plays with that edge, and when he plays that way he has a lot of success. He’s playing on a good line with (Jay) Legault and (Travis) Lisabeth. He’s having success and he’s getting rewarded for it.
“With a lot of our guns gone, he had to fill one of those roles,” Woods continued. “He had a good year last year, played with a couple of good players, but now he has to take on more of a leadership role. Instead of playing with a Walby or Gauvreau, now he’s got to be the Walby- or Gauvreau-type of guy. He’s done well with it and as long as he continues to work hard, stay focused and not get complacent, he’ll continue to have success.”
Playing in his third year in Mississippi, Hutchins has long been considered one of the team’s top contributors. Last season, his play was rewarded with call-ups to the American Hockey League’s Houston Aeros and Rochester Americans.
Call-ups have been hard to come by this season, with the National Hockey League lockout flooding the lower levels with an abundance of talent. But Hutchins has been taking it all in stride.
“Coming in, I somewhat had aspirations of being up at the next level,” he said. “Unfortunately, with the NHL lockout I haven’t had that chance this year so far.
“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” he continued. “That’s what this league is for, to get guys called up. If it doesn’t happen, I’m perfectly content with being here and trying to win a championship.”
Though Woods is pulling for Hutchins to get another chance at the next level, he said Hutchins’ talents are certainly welcomed in Mississippi.
“We’re fortunate to still have him,” Woods said. “Whether we’ll keep him for the rest of the year, who knows? It’s kind of out of our hands. It’s a different situation this year with the NHL not playing, it takes a lot of the call-ups away, but if he keeps doing what he’s doing, people are going to notice. As long as he’s patient and just takes care of business while he’s here, I’m sure he’ll get an opportunity somewhere.”
Hutchins’ teammates also notice his improvement from a year ago.
“When I think of Hutchins, I think of a tough kid who can hold his own out there,” said Sea Wolves captain and former All-Star Louis Dumont. “He doesn’t back down from anybody. He’s got good touch around the net, and he’s got more confidence this year. He’s a complete hockey player, at least as an ECHL player. I think he deserves a shot at the next level.”
Until then, Hutchins says he is relishing his new role as the team’s go-to guy.
“I love it down here, and it’s a pretty good place to play,” he said. “It was time for me to step up and play a bigger role, and I’m going to keep trying to do that.”