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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski - USA TODAY Sports

Canucks Army Year in Review: Ben Hutton

After a surprising and mostly successful freshman campaign – one in which he was not expected to make the opening night roster – many observers claimed that Ben Hutton appeared to experience a slight regression in 2016-17. His one goal, 25-point performance in his rookie season was a very pleasant development for the Canucks organization. His follow-up season, not so much.

Jim Benning and the Canucks management group rewarded Hutton’s rookie year with a substantial raise. The two-year, $5.6 million dollar extension represented good value for a young defenceman who could be part of the Canucks core for years to come. Hutton’s numbers, however, took a small dip in 2017. Although he quintupled his goal output from one to five, he managed ten fewer assists while finishing with 19 points. That, in four fewer games. Due to this perceived slip in performance, Hutton became the subject of trade rumours as a sophomore, with particular links to Evander Kane in Buffalo, and more recently, to someone like Ryan Spooner in Boston.

But was Ben Hutton’s season as much a hit to his development as some would have you believe? The truth, as always, is a bit more nuanced.

Above are Hutton’s total 5v5 possession stats for the 2017 year, courtesy our friends at Stats Hockey Analysis. His possession rates actually witnessed a slight improvement over 2016, as we can see below.

While his expected goals for and against decreased and increased, respectively, the Canucks faced fewer attempts on goal when Hutton was on the ice in his second year than during his first. There was also a related decline in Canucks shot attempts, but that decline was not nearly as significant. Although his production may have dropped off a bit during his sophomore season, that may have had more to do with luck than any massive decline in his game.

It may also have had something to do with his defence partners. At even strength, Hutton was paired most often with Erik Gudbranson (until his injury) and Nikita Tryamkin (afterwards). In 428:05 of shared ice time at 5v5 with Gudbranson, the Canucks averaged 47.4% of total shot attempts. In 74:37 of even strength ice time without Hutton, the club’s shot attempt percentage with Gudbranson fell to 46%. For his part, without Gudbranson, Hutton actually experienced a slight uptick to 47.8%. These differences are illustrated most clearly in the graph below.

See that tiny red dot in the middle of the chart? That was Gudbranson’s performance without Hutton. The dot is small because the sample size is admittedly small (Desjardins rarely played Gudbranson at even strength without Hutton prior to his injury), but it indicates that Gudbranson may have in fact relied more on Hutton to shelter his play, rather than the reverse. This analysis runs contrary to Gudbranson’s pointed criticism of Hutton earlier in the season. Back in November, Hutton’s customary partner remarked:

We’re going to watch video and see what’s going on and this is a process with a young guy. He (Hutton) has less than 100 games and it takes 300 to learn to defend well.

Gudbranson received some criticism of his own for that comment, but his season would soon end abruptly due to injury – resulting in Hutton finding a new partner in Nikita Tryamkin. This pair would ultimately provide a more accurate assessment of Hutton’s play in 2017.

In 378:34 minutes of even strength ice time together, Hutton carried a 47.9% CF – a mark that held fairly stable even when the two were pulled apart. As we can see in the chart above, there was a remarkable amount of consistency between situations where Hutton and Tryamkin were together and when they were separated. The amount of overlap on the chart suggests that this was a more accurate reflection of Hutton’s 2016-17 campaign than his time spent with Gudbranson. It is also worth pointing out that the Canucks top three point producers – Bo Horvat and the Sedins – all experienced noticeably better CF percentages with Hutton than without him.

If we evaluate Hutton’s 2017 performance, therefore, in two different contexts – one with Gudbranson and the other with Tryamkin – then a different picture begins to emerge. Instead of a scenario where we interpret Hutton’s 2016-17 campaign as a developmental regression, we can more reasonably make the case that it was actually a slight improvement. His bottom line production decreased a bit more due to luck than anything immediately concerning about his play. The Canucks on-ice shooting percentage, for instance, dipped from 6.5% in 2016 to 6.1% last season when Hutton was on the ice, and should rebound with continued improved play from the young blueliner.

The Canucks, meanwhile, would be wary of placing too much emphasis on Hutton’s performance when partnered with Gudbranson. His play over the last half of the season justified some of the faith the organization placed in him when it signed him to that extension last summer. He may even make the next step before he reaches those coveted 300 games.

  • TheRealPB

    This article does a lot to support my sense from the year, that Hutton has received a bad rap. After the top two D — Tanev and Edler — the next three in their actual performance to me seem to be Stetcher, Hutton and Tryamkin, with Sbisa spotty and Gudbranson underwhelming at best prior to his injury. It’s not a great look that two vets played below three 1st/2nd year players and just ahead of the AHL players like Biega and Larsen. It’s also true that most of the veteran d are either defensive defensemen or two-way D (with the exception of Larsen though he seemed equally lacking in both areas). I think that also hamstrung Hutton. When we acquired Gudbranson and through training camp most of the talk was about how Hutton would be “unleashed” with a steady rock patrolling behind him. But what I saw instead was that Hutton took a lot of chances and Gudbranson wasn’t terribly good at covering. Maybe that’s because the offensive D that Gudbranson played with in Florida were either skilled vets like Campbell or elite youngsters like Ekblad. Either way in my view it was Gudbranson and not Hutton who looked bad in this — but of course the investment of a 5th round pick in acquiring the latter is not the cost of a 1st, 2nd and 4th which is what Gudbranson cost us. I am hoping that we don’t sink a boatload of money into resigning him though I would be surprised if we didn’t, asset use and all…

    And while I like Hutton, I also think he probably projects as a decent 4/5 defenseman so I wouldn’t be opposed at all to him being traded. As the Lack trade showed us, it’s wise to value the actual skill, not the personality.

  • This raises an interesting question. How does Travis Green pair our defensemen. If Edler – Stecher remain as our top pairing, it makes sense to have Hutton – Tanev as our second pair, leaving Gudbranson – Juolevi as our third, assuming Vegas takes Sbisa. Juolevi pretty much has to make the team and hope he develops chemistry with Gudbranson. Also, this moves Gudbranson down to our third pairing and he probably wants first pairing money.

  • Pat Quinn Way

    It speaks volumes about how far backwards the clown Benning has taken us that our best players are still Mike Gillis signings Chris Tanev and Bowie Horvat. With the NHL now all-in on fast skating, puck moving defencemen utilized so effectively by Pittsburgh and Nashville, Ben Hutton is another astute ypung pick by GMMG who fits this mode and will therefore be a key component for years to come on the Canucks blueline. Gillis always advocated (and never wavered) that speed and skill are the way forward… Benning just copies trends after the fact gets left behind. That’s why we won’t get a sniff of playoff hockey under his watch.

    Why most of the the fickle fans and CA bloggers cannot see this and acknowledge it makes me so grateful they will never make a hockey decision in their lives.
    Tanev – keeper
    Horvat – keeper
    Benjamin Hutton – keeper.

  • Fred-65

    Frankly I see any defensive partner of Gudbranson having trouble. He’s the epitomy of the “off the glass and out defenseman” he might, I repeat might offer some intimidation although I see little evidence. Martin may have been smacked around to some degree but the threat was never enough to stop him from giving it to Stecher ie he wasn’t intimidated by Gudbransons presence on the roster. If Gudbranson is going to be any thing like an intimidator he needs to step up his “presence” I felt for Hutton having to work with an anchor like Gudbranson. Hopefully he gets a different partner this year and is able to capitalize with his offensive abilities and his cool play in his own end

  • Bud Poile

    Unless you lived in Florida you haven’t seen a healthy Gudbranson play hockey.
    The NHL is full of violent hackers so a huge defender is not a liability.
    The Vancouver D of Stetcher,Hutton,Subban and Tanev aren’t exactly a fearsome,punishing set of rearguards.
    Let’s see what a healthy EGuddy offers on a bridge deal.

    • TheRealPB

      Didn’t Gudbranson turn down a four year $18 million extension from Florida? If he is expecting more than $4.5 million per season, did you see anything in his play that would warrant making him higher paid than Tanev? And fifth highest paid on the team after the Sedins, Eriksson and Edler (notwithstanding the goalie and Horvat signings this summer)? I was all for waiting to see how Gudbranson played before passing judgement but frankly his play didn’t impress me and it wasn’t about the injury. It was about his seeming inability to track players in his own zone, being slow on decision-making, and generally poor at gap control. He was certainly a fan favorite in Florida and I can see that they thought highly of his leadership skills. I personally have a harder time believing that when players throw their teammates — especially younger ones — under the bus. In that respect neither Sutter or Gudbranson endeared themselves to me this year. Benning has taken some chances that have really paid off (Granlund, Baertschi, Miller), but these two “foundational” acquisitions are not among them (so far).

      • defenceman factory

        Completely agree Gudbranson’s play was underwhelming. So where to from here?

        The worst option is to give him a big contract with term. As an RFA a 2 year deal right now wouldn’t be too bad. He is eligible for arbitration but the annual cost should be well under $4 mil. He would be tradeable under that contract. Might turn out okay if the Canucks wait and see if any offer sheets turn up. Not sure what the current compensation rates are. I believe an offer of $4 million means a 1st and a 3rd. Many here would be happy with that.

  • wojohowitz

    The contract extension (which was not necessary at the time) sent Hutton the message that he was a top four defenceman and he better play like one rather than what he actually was – a second year pro who hoped to improve on his rookie season.

  • EddyC

    Interesting that you would use an article on Hutton to trash Gubranson. We get it you didn’t like the trade, you do know that Gub was playing with that injury for months before calling it but you pretend it happened right before he went for surgery. McCann has 1 goal in 29 games, I think we already won that trade but your stats say we lost it. You guys didn’t like the Hunter Shinkaruk trade. There’s a theme going on here you can read numbers but you don’t know what you’re looking at. We will be fine with a healthy Gubranson and if Hutton can become an acurate puck moving D he will be fine also.

  • Cageyvet

    It’s too early still to be so down on Gudbranson, particularly given the thoughts of his ex-teammates in Florida, he obviously was a leader for them. When it comes to Hutton, I really like this kid and think he should be given all sorts of opportunity to succeed, but the numbers used in this article are pretty lame. If this was a Sbisa article it would be slanted the other way, I see numbers that aren’t particularly great and I watched the games. Hutton was flat out brutal at the start of the season, and made many errors that had nothing to do with his defensive partner. He did get better in the back half of the year, but to blame it on Gudbranson is nuts. Give Hutton time, he’ll keep learning and he’ll be fine. As for Gudbranson, those who want him to be no better than a bottom 6 will get their wish if they don’t play him with a proven top 4 defenseman. Unfortunately, the Canucks only have 2 of those, Edler and Tanev, and I don’t think Gudbranson played 10 seconds with either of them. We’re not so deep on defense that we don’t have time to give all these guys a healthy look this season, and since we’re not going anywhere this year, make sure they get lots of playing time regardless of the outcome of the games. It is time to see who steps up and is going to be a keeper, but I don’t think we can say for sure what the ceiling is for either of these 2 defensemen just yet.

  • DJ_44

    It may come as no surprise, but I am firmly in the trade Hutton camp. His value may not get higher and you want to trade hope (sorry, high ceiling) rather than performance in Ben’s case. He is a bottom pairing guy that is good at the offensive blue line, but struggles in other areas of the game, including defensive zone coverage and (bizarrely) moving the puck up the ice.

    Grab some picks and move on.