There have some great surprises to start off the year, but none more so than the three young prospects who have played well enough to stick with the big boys, at least for now. Many people had Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann on their radars, but few people seem to have known about Ben Hutton, let alone knew how good he was.
Ben Hutton was drafted in the 2012 draft class, Mike Gillis’ penultimate draft. Previously, this draft class was considered another one of Gillis’ weaker performances, but thanks to recent developments, that sentiment has started to turn around. Ben Hutton was one of the college prospects that Gillis picked in the later rounds, and he did so knowing that college would afford him more time to develop. Over the past two seasons, Hutton he has performed exceptionally in the NCAA, something I’ve been championing in my prospect reports for quite some time.
Now, that doesn’t fit in with the “coming out party” narrative, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not the case, not to mention, an arguably better scenario than a sudden blossoming. Lets turn back the clock for a few minutes, shall we?
As we all know, the best players in the world are, by and large, playing in the National Hockey League. But how did they get there? Usually, players climb up the ranks by being among the best in a lower league, earning the attention of the level above. This is why there’s a big emphasis on rate-based production when analyzing prospects.
Points are often used as a guide, especially after accounting for factors like quality of teammates, relative age, and era adjustments. As a rule of thumb, those who produce more frequently than others are more likely to develop into talent that can stick around at a higher level.
But goals are rare. Only a few of them happen per game, and they’re not created equally, and can often rely on how good your opposing goaltender is on a given night. For this reason, scoring rates might not always be perfect, which is why it’s best to dig down into larger samples. In the NHL, we’ve gotten to the point of using attempted shots, but at the prospect level, shots on goal are your bread and butter. It’s the most frequent offensive event that you can find data for, which gives you the lowest variance.
Even still, shot rates aren’t easy to find in the lower levels. While the QMJHL has had shot data for years, the OHL is only catching up this season, and the WHL only has it in certain rinks. Thankfully, Ben Hutton is a college prospect, and their data is much more conpresnsive.
To be blunt, Hutton shot quite a bit more than the typical NCAA defenceman. Last year, he averaged 2.94 shots per game. That was slightly down from his rate of 3.40 per game in 2013/14, but still significantly above the system-wide median of 1.17 shots/game, which has a standard deviation of 0.62. Hutton ranked 9th in shots per game, putting him in the top 2% of all 419 NCAA defencemen. This rate also puts him in the top 6% of all 1476 skaters, as only 75 forwards took shots more frequently than him.
Shot rates don’t paint the entire portrait, but we can infer a lot from them. Given that Maine was never a great team, possessing the puck at a 50.1% rate last season, and ranked towards the bottom of the pack in goal generation and suppression the year before, we can assume that it is unlikely that Hutton had the type of support that would positively drive his performance. We can infer that Ben Hutton has consistently been doing the right things and was able to give himself the opportunities he needed to ensure that he was able to generate offence.
To address the concern of tracker bias, we can split the home and away games and only look at the away games. While the sample becomes smaller, the number of people per game who influenced the shot numbers becomes larger. For Hutton’s Away and Home splits we see rates of 2.83 and 3.04 shots/game. While his home numbers are possibly bloating his overall production, these two samples of games are 93.4% statistically similar using a two-tailed t-test. A 2.83 shot rate still keeps Hutton in the elite area of NCAA defencemen.
Quality of Competition
Now that we’ve concluded that Hutton was already one of the best offensive opportunity generators in his prior league, we need to put the league’s status in context. College hockey, thanks to it’s older skaters, is quite a bit tougher than the CHL’s three leagues in terms of opposition. The research we’ve done on Prospect Cohort Success (PCS) implies that that success in a “higher league” typically leads to a better chance of success.
NHLe, an equivalency formula developed to line up point production across the major levels and tweaked as more data becomes available, places the NCAA at a level near the AHL. Current translations place the value of an AHL point at 0.478 NHL points while the NCAA come in at around 0.40; still a fair bit better than major junior, which varies between 0.27 and 0.33.
For Hutton to be able to as good as he has amongst his peers at a level not significantly worse than the American Hockey League is a very good indication that he could succeed at the highest level sooner than later.
NCAA Graduation Rates
The NHL’s CBA and the NCAA’s rules against players getting paid don’t exactly mesh well, and as such, teams are typically forced into interesting moments of decision making. If a team sees potential in their college prospect, they’d be wise to sign them before they start their fourth year of schooling. This is because a prospect that has finished school without a contract can become a free agent on the following August 15th.
Prospects like these come around every so often. Blake Wheeler and Justin Schultz were high profile examples in the past, and the Canucks once signed Toronto (via Chicago)’s Bill Sweatt thanks to this rule.
Last year, Nashville’s Jimmy Vesey of Harvard finished the season with 58 points in 37 games – a high scoring rate for an NCAA forward. He took over four shots per game, but it’s unlikely he will repeat his 20% shooting percentage from the year prior. He finished his third season in the NCAA this past offseason and has returned to school for a fourth year, meaning that he will likely become the NCAA free agent to watch in this coming offseason.
Looking back at historical trends, we can see that those players who have left the NCAA early were more likely to become NHL players, presumably because their NHL teams identified them as players they couldn’t afford to give up. This is just another signal suggesting success in Ben Hutton.
Also for interests sake, NCAA defencemen who play any NHL games in the year following leaving school see their odds of success increase greatly. This is little surprise, as it suggests that talent evaluators are good at identifying NHL talent. This bodes well for the long-term success of Ben Hutton.
Drafted NCAA Ds graduation rate is similar:
17: 0% (SSS)
— Josh Weissbock (@joshweissbock) July 21, 2015
The other end also needs to be evaluated. Ben Hutton is entering his 22-year-old season. If he does not start playing in the NHL now, that does not reflect positively on his outlook. The odds of a 23-year-old, whether developed in the AHL or the NCAA, coming into the NHL with limited prior minutes and succeeding begins to fall off dramatically.
Like most prospects, the odds are always against you, but there are certain things we can look for that suggest strong talent. Once you start to look at Ben Hutton beyond his draft status then you start to see a lot of evidence supporting him developing into a regular NHLer.
Critics will point to the fact that he didn’t play for the Utica Comets during their push to the Calder Cup Finals. This shouldn’t be seen as a huge concern; Travis Green has a tendency to lean on his veteran players, particularly if the rookies are ones that he doesn’t know well. Green appeared to want the silverware above all else, so it’s of no shock that he didn’t take risks on sudden development.
Outside of that, Ben Hutton has been one of the NCAA’s stand out offensive defencemen for a few years now. With that considered, it’s not as surprising to see him have the breakthrough camp and start to the NHL season that he’s had. This isn’t a coming out party; you just missed the extended opening ceremony.