As we move closer and closer to the top-5 prospects in the Vancouver Canucks’ system, we start moving out of “we hope this guy can make the NHL” territory, and into the range of guys where we can reasonably expect them to make some sort of legitimate NHL impact.
Ben Hutton, our 8th ranked prospect, hasn’t quite earned “surefire NHLer” status yet, but considering the season he had with the University of Maine Black Bears in the NCAA last year, he’s knocking loudly on that door.
While a large majority of the guys we’ve profiled can say that they had a good 2013-2014 (except for one extremely notable guy we’ll get to some time down the road), only Hutton can claim that his was all-time good. The big, mobile, and talented forward-turned-defender broke a University of Maine scoring record for defensemen, rippling the mesh behind notoriously stingy Hockey East goalies an astounding 15 times. But in case “Look! GOALS!” wasn’t a strong enough selling point, Ben Hutton does all sorts of other things quite well, too, leaving us with many, many reasons to be hopeful that he’ll find himself in the NHL sooner rather than later.
Generally speaking, the biggest concern you should have when looking at a guy with an oddly high goal total is that he simply rode a high shooting percentage for the majority of the season. Ben Hutton did shoot at a 12.61% clip last year, which is really high for a defenseman and likely due to regress in the long run, but it’s also worth pointing out a couple of things:
1) The comparatively larger talent gap that exists between top and bottom end players in leagues lower than the NHL means that things like shooting talent should be more pronounced than it is in the NHL, and therefore high shooting percentages somewhat more sustainable
2) Just look at these highlights:
Yeah, there are some floaters from the blueline that probably won’t keep finding the back of the net in the long run, but there are also quite a few goals from places where you really wouldn’t expect a defenseman to be. For example, just look at where he is on the first goal of that highlight package:
Not only has Hutton thrown the penalty kill for a loop by roaming from the far left point to the near right corner, but he also scores from a near impossible angle, beating the goalie from an position that he really doesn’t have much business hitting the net from. Having the presence of mind to attack the opposing net like a forward and get yourself into prime scoring locations is one way to theoretically maintain a high shooting percentage, and it looks like Hutton is able to do just that.
Regardless, 15 goals is a hard thing to do if you’re a 20-year old D in the NCAA. Justin Schultz, a noted offensive dynamo in college, had 18 in his 20-year old season, while Torey Krug and Brendan Smith had 12 and 15 in their respective campaigns. Former Colorado Avalanche 2nd rounder Colby Cohen also tallied 14 times for Boston University when he was 20, and Preds 4th rounder Garrett Noonan scored 16 times in 2011-2012. Other than that, 15 G, 20-year old D are very few and far between.
Aside from being the only defenseman in the NCAA’s Hockey East to lead his team in goals, Hutton also added 14 assists on the year, giving him the Hockey East lead in total scoring by defensemen, and only 23-year old Trevor van Riemsdyk had a higher points per game.
Perhaps the most statistically impressive thing about Hutton’s season aren’t his lofty point totals, but his obscenely high shot rate. Josh Weissbock found that Hutton averaged 3.4 shots on goal per game this past season, which is a ton for any player, let alone a blueliner. To put 3.4 shots per game into perspective, only 16 skaters, none of whom are defenseman, averaged more shots on goal per game in the NHL last year. They include Alex Ovechkin, Jamie Benn, Evander Kane, Phil Kessel, Tyler Seguin, Max Pacioretty, Corey Perry, and Jeff Skinner. Hutton is obviously an elite offensive D in the NCAA, but what about his own end of the ice?
Hutton’s NCAA coach, Red Gendron, certainly thinks that Hutton is as reliable in his end of the ice as he is effective in his opponent’s:
He’s got a great stick, and he’s got a great feel for the game. Obviously, he can skate. But there have been moments this year, on the penalty kill and other defensive situations, he’s been incredible. Basically, most nights he and Brice O’Connor play against the other team’s best players.
SBNation’s College Hockey blog, who ranked Hutton as the number 21 prospect in the entire NCAA, shares a similar sentiment:
Hutton is clearly the horse of the Maine blue line and has often times spent the entire two minutes on the ice during a penalty kill. He has good vision and has the ability ti be a one-man breakout.
Hutton was rewarded for his terrific season with the Black Bears by being named to Hockey East’s first all-star team, along with teammate and Dallas 2nd round pick Devin Shore, Florida 1st round pick Michael Matheson, Chicago 1st round pick Kevin Hayes, and Calgary 4th rounder and 2014 Hobey Baker winner John Gaudreau. Needless to say, the now 20-year old defenseman has grown by leaps and bounds since being selected as a draft+1 player in the 5th round of 2012.
It’s pretty rare that an NHL team can boast a 6’3″, 200+ lb defenseman that’s a force at both ends of the ice. These types of guys are generally extremely coveted and perhaps the single hardest asset to find in today’s NHL. But that’s exactly what Ben Hutton is right now, and even though it’s far from a guarantee that he’ll be anything near that at the NHL level, he’s shown that he belongs in the discussion with Vancouver’s other top prospects.
It’s hard to say what a defenseman’s ceiling is – Kevin Bieksa evolved into a legitimate top-pairing D after a modest CCHA career – so we don’t really know with any degree of certainty what Ben Hutton will turn into. Maybe he’ll be Justin Schultz. Maybe he’ll be Jeff Schultz. Maybe he’ll be really good. Maybe he’ll suck. What we can say is that Hutton looks like he’s given himself as good a chance as any to make the NHL in a legitimate full-time capacity, and really, that’s all you can reasonably ask of a 5th round pick.