It’s long been a staple of Canucks Army to take a strong stance on controversial players, dating all the way back to Thomas Drance’s very first article on this site, when he planted his flag firmly in the camp of Mason Raymond.
Our thirst for this hasn’t changed, and we’ve levied opinions on plenty of contentious players since then. Canucks Army members were truthers for the value of Jannik Hansen and Alex Edler, when the public couldn’t decide if they were overrated or underrated. We were supportive of Sven Baertschi when his place in the lineup was a hot topic, and we’ve never been shy about our feelings on Brandon Sutter or Erik Gudbranson.
These days, one of the more polarizing players is defenceman Ben Hutton. My stance here is that Ben Hutton is a very good defenceman, and is probably better than a lot of people think he is. But of course, that all depends on your personal opinion of him.
Be warned: I’ve flagged this article as a deep dive. As such, it’s going to be very long and very thorough.
A note on the stats used in this article: on-ice stats are up-to-date as of today, October 25th. Tracked microstats are through the first eight games only – so not including Tuesday’s game against Minnesota.
A few weeks ago on Sportsnet 650’s The Playbook, I heard hosts Satiar Shah and Jawn Jang debating the value of Ben Hutton. This conversation caught my attention for a number of reasons.
First, I was pretty floored by Jang’s opinion on Hutton. He was quite skeptical of the 23-year defenceman – not only of whether he is a top four blueliner, but whether he ever will be. He went on to compare Hutton not once, but twice, to Philip Larsen, because both are “puck moving defencemen” who, in Jang’s words, “haven’t figured it out yet”. He also stated that he doesn’t believe that Hutton is “the top four saviour” that some people think he is.
At this point, Sat challenged interjected.
“Who, that is credible, has labeled Ben Hutton as a top four saviour?”
“I’ve seen that plenty of times,” Jang responded, before pointing the finger our way. “Your Canucks Army boys have actually been writing articles about how Ben Hutton is better than most people think.”
I have some thoughts on this.
First, I wasn’t sure this was an accurate read of the situation. Most of us here at Canucks Army (we are now typically collectively referred to as one entity with one single opinion, though this often isn’t the case) do in fact think highly of Ben Hutton. However, I was pretty sure that the market thinks pretty highly of Ben Hutton as well. I wasn’t sure there was a need for this site to be writing articles about Hutton being better than people thought, because it seemed that the general opinion was pretty much on par with ours.
That brings me to my second thought. Given that we haven’t really needed to pump Hutton’s tires, it makes sense there doesn’t seem to be any Canucks Army articles in which this is a topic. Nor do there appear to be any tweets from any current Canucks Army contributors containing the terms “Hutton” and “better”, let alone any specifically claiming that Hutton is better than somebody else perceives him to be. Now, there still exists the possibility that a writer like J.D. Burke or Ryan Biech, who make regular radio appearances, has said something to this effect on air. But as of now, there is no written evidence of Jang’s claim.
The market is apparently less in agreement with this that I had originally thought, given the discussion on the radio, online, and most recently, in the Provies, in which Jason Botchford specifically wrote “I’m actually expecting to see a ‘Hutton isn’t as bad as you think’ think piece churned out soon” following the game against Buffalo. Well, here we are.
As a proxy for the issues that the doubters have with Ben Hutton, I’ll lay out Jang’s criticisms, which can be summarized in the following list:
- His plus-minus the last two season has been bad
- His possession stats have been bad
- He isn’t a top four defenceman/hasn’t put it all together yet
- He is comparable to Philip Larsen
I’ll get the plus-minus and possession stats stuff out of the way right away. Jang admitted that plus-minus isn’t the “be all end all”, to which Sat correctly responded that plus-minus is “bunk”. It’s an objectively terrible way to measure the value of a player, and while Hutton’s career rating of minus-39 is admittedly ghastly, there are much better and more reliable ways to make a point.
Moving on to Hutton’s possession stats, Jang is correct that Hutton’s 46.8% adjusted* Corsi-for percentage from last season isn’t what you’d want out of a top four defenceman. It was, however, the fourth best Corsi percentage on the team. Better yet, Hutton led the entire Canucks blueline in adjusted* xGF%, though it was with an underwhelming 46.9%.
Whether Ben Hutton is a top four defencemen might mean different things to different people. Does it mean that he’s one of the Canucks’ four best defencemen? Or does it mean that he’s one of the top 124 (31 x 4) defencemen in the NHL? We can explore both of these options as we proceed through the article.
Honestly, I’m not even going to touch on the Philip Larsen thing. If you think that Hutton and Larsen are highly similar players, I’m not sure what you’re watching.
One of Hutton’s attributes that makes him so valuable to the Canucks is that he is capable of well-above-average play in all situations. We’ll take the time to look at his play, and his numbers, in each situation: 5-on-5, the power play, and the penalty kill.
At even strength this season, Hutton’s shot ratio numbers are similar to what he has put up in years past. His adjusted* Corsi-for percentage is still hovering around 48%, while his expected-goal share is now a few points above even (53.2%). One minor difference is that the team’s shot metrics as a whole are better, so Hutton’s relative Corsi is now negative (-2.7%), though his relative xGF% remains positive.
We can break this down further though, because a percentage is only telling half the story of a number made up of two different segments of data: events for and against. Throughout his short career, Ben Hutton’s Corsi-against rate has been very close to the league average (47.7), and has actually declined from season to season (from 51.0 to 47.8 to 44.1 shot attempts against per hour). It’s his Corsi-for that has hampered him, posting per hour rates of 42.6, 42.1, and 40.9 from rookie year to present.
Unsurprisingly, there are large fluctuations in Hutton’s shot ratios, depending on his defensive partner. Table 1 below, lays out ratios and rates for shot attempts, unblocked shots, and expected goals.
Table 1 – On-Ice Stats Partner Variations (2015-16 to present, cumulative)
In the case of both shot attempts and unblocked shots, Chris Tanev appears to be the ideal partner. With Tanev, Hutton experienced his lowest rates against in all three measures. Unfortunately, their for-rates are correspondingly low. He experiences better offensive results with the likes of Troy Stecher and Alex Edler, but the cost of pucks going the other direction seems to outweigh the benefit.
Table 1 is an updated chart, but I’ve seen similar results before, and that’s why I advocated for Ben Hutton and Chris Tanev to play together at 5-on-5 when asked by Jon Abbott last weekend on Nation Network radio. Jon noted that whoever plays with Tanev is essentially stuck in a first pairing role, and that’s fair. For me, it’s not about Hutton being a top pairing defenceman (I don’t think he’s there yet), I just think he’s the best of the three healthy left-handed options at this point.
Relative to the rest of the league is another question. Hammering out what should count as top two/top four/top six possession numbers is a tricky venture. The conventional route is the break players into tiers based on their even strength ice time: the top 62 are the top pair players, the next 62 are the middle pair players, and so on, based on the idea that with 31 teams in the league, there are twice that many jobs available for each pairing.
However, the difference between the top pairing and bottom pairing in terms of shot shares when organized in this manner is minuscule – only a couple of percentage points. This is largely the fault of coaches: who they play more is not necessarily who has better on-ice numbers. There is a ton of variation within each pairing sample, so you can’t exactly disqualify a defenceman from a certain pairing based solely on their possession numbers. That said, the idea is obviously to try to stay above 50%, so in any case, Ben Hutton needs to be better in this regard.
Looking at it from a ranked perspective, we’ll find Hutton’s career adjusted* Fenwick-for percentage of 45.8% at 257th out of 287 defencemen that have played at least 200 minutes at 5-on-5 since 2015-16. The 51.1% ratio he has shared with Chris Tanev, however, would slot in at 82nd. Who you play with is a huge deal in this league.
5-on-5 Tracked Stats
Obviously there’s a lot more to statistics than just on-ice shot rates, so let’s get into some of the minutiae.
Darryl Keeping has been meticulous tracking Canucks defencemen in several different areas of the ice, in all sorts of situations. At 5-on-5, this includes defensive zone exits, offensive zone entries, and neutral zone defence.
The entries have been a big hit online, as Darryl has posted them live during the games. Ben Hutton has fared very well, at least relative the rest of the Canucks D-men (it should be noted that one issue with tracked stats is that we can only compare players to other players that have been tracked – in this case other Canucks, but not the rest of the league, making it difficult to establish baselines).
Table 2 – Zone Exits (via Darryl Keeping)
|Player||TOI||Direct Ctrl. Exits||Direct Ctrl. Exits/60 ↓||Direct Ctrl. Exit %||D-Zone Pass %||Fail %|
Zone entries, neutral zone defence, and shot assists haven’t gotten as much attention, as they aren’t released with every game. Darryl did, however, post them on his website following the game against Detroit.
Entries are mildly interesting, but don’t tell us a whole lot. By and large, defencemen aren’t responsible for zone entries – they are responsible for getting the puck on to the sticks of forwards, who will then get the puck into the offensive zone. That isn’t always the case though, as defencemen will sometimes either join the rush and may either carry or pass the puck into the offensive zone, or they may dump the puck in for either a dump and change or a dump and chase (neither is ideal because both mean giving up possession of the puck).
Then we move on to neutral zone play – specifically defending one’s own blue line. This is an oft underrated and under-reported skill: not only is it not provided by the league, it’s not even among your standard pack of tracked zone stats. Darryl has us covered though.
Table 3 – Neutral Zone Blue Line Defence (via Darryl Keeping)
|Player||TOI||Ctrl Entry Against % ↑||Dump In Against %||Break Up %|
Table 3, sorted by Controlled Entries Against Percentage, displays Hutton being second only to Chris Tanev in terms of opposing teams entering the zone with control when he is the targeted defenceman. Concordantly, the percentage of targets that result in dump-ins (a favourable for the defending player) is also second best to Tanev. His break up percentage, meanwhile, is the third best, following Troy Stecher and Derrick Pouliot.
Lastly, there are shot assists, which I find tremendously interesting. I participated briefly in Ryan Stimson’s passing project back in 2015-16, and have had a fascination for it ever since. They follow the same idea as assists, except for all shot attempts, rather than just goals. Evidence has indicated that shot assists (especially those into dangerous offensive areas) are a better predictor of future assists than current assists are.
At even strength, Hutton’s shot assist rate is largely middle of the pack on the Canucks – it’s on the power play where he really shines in this regard, and we’ll get to that next.
Which defencemen should be running the Canucks power play has been a contentious topic for the past couple of years, largely because the power play has been so poor. Really, they haven’t had a prolonged hot stretch since the let Yannick Weber and his booming right-handed slap shot go at the end of 2014-15. Alex Edler has long be the first choice for the top unit, while Troy Stecher took it over for large portions of last season.
So far this season, Ben Hutton is leading all Vancouver defencemen in 5-on-4 time-on-ice. He and Edler started the season as the point men on the two four-forward units, and he’s continued to amass time since Edler was injured and the Canucks began experimenting with three-forward units.
Edler has often been maligned on the power play because of his penchant for snapping sticks are hitting shin guards, but within the numbers you’ll find that his individual and on-ice shots rates are among the best the Canucks have had to offer since Christian Ehrhoff left six years ago. Former Canucks coach Willie Desjardins was a big believer in using Troy Stecher on the power play, as are many Canucks fans. But for my money, with Alex Edler out of the lineup, Ben Hutton is the best option available.
I think that both Hutton and Stecher have similar abilities in terms of power play breakouts. However, heretofore this season, both have had their struggles, though I think that has more to do with Vancouver’s breakout structure and strategy. Earlier this week, Janik Beichler made his debut on Canucks Army with a fantastic article on the current struggles of the Canucks’ power play, which includes how their breakout strategy limits options and inhibits the ability to enter the offensive zone with control. This is not the fault of the defenceman, and thus neither have an advantage in this regard so far.
Once they get into the offensive zone, however, the advantages go to Hutton. So far in this young season, his underlying power play numbers have been fantastic. He not only leads the Canucks in 5-on-4 shot attempts per hour, he also leads in 5-on-4 shot attempt assists per hour, meaning he’s taking more and shots and setting up more shots than any other defenceman on the power play.
Table 4 – Power Play Shot Contributions (via Corsica + Darryl Keeping)
|Player||TOI||Shot Attempts/60||Shot Attempt Assists/60||Primary Shot Contributions/60 ↓|
One of the criticisms that I’ve heard of Hutton is that he shoots too many pucks into opponent’s shin pads. Now, he does have a lot of his shots blocked, but there are a couple of notes about this. One is that groan-inducing blocked shots stick out in your memory. Remember that Ryan Kesler used to be the king of shooting into shinpads, yet he still managed to put 260 shots on net and score 41 goals in 2010-11. Likewise, Alex Edler’s legacy is likely to be his propensity for snapping sticks while trying to shoot, yet he has still managed to lead Canuck defencemen in shots per game every season since 2011-12.
The second note is that I’m not entirely sure that having a ton of shots blocked is the worst thing, given who some of the league leaders in that category are. We’ll get to that.
At 5-on-4, Ben Hutton has taken 14 shot attempts, with 6 of them being blocked. That’s a Thru Percentage (unblocked shot attempts as a percentage of all shot attempts) of just 57.1%. Maybe that sounds worrisome, but you know who else has a Thru Percentage of 57.1%? Erik Karlsson, who is ostensibly pretty good at hockey.
The raw number of shots that get blocked, and the percentage of all shots taken that get blocked aren’t nearly as relevant as the rate of the shots that are taken in the first place. In that respect, Hutton looks fine, now averaging 32.3 shot attempts per hour, and 18.5 unblocked shot attempts per hour. That unblocked shot rate is within a few decimal points of Karlsson, as well as Alex Pietrangelo, Tyler Myers, Victor Hedman, and Kevin Shattenkirk. Those are his current comparables in terms of the shots that get through, though I can’t promise it’ll stay that way. He’s currently far above the 5-on-4 shot rates he posted the last two seasons, so this will be something to keep an eye on.
Often viewed as a more offensive defenceman, it might not be a surprise that Hutton is doing as well as he is on the power play. His prowess on the penalty kill may be more of a surprise.
We have three avenues to analyze shorthanded play here: on-ice numbers, video, and a combination of the two, tracked microstats. First, let’s look at how he stacks up according to the on-ice data.
Table 5 – 4-on-5 On-Ice Rates
One of the standard measures of shorthanded success is Fenwick-Against per 60, or the amount of unblocked shots against the player is on the ice for per hour. Hutton fares very well in this regard, with an FA60 of 51.3 per hour, which is second only to Alex Edler’s 56.0 on the Canucks, and more than full 10 unblocked shots per hour lower than Chris Tanev.
However, his expected goals against per hour (xGA60, which takes into account shot location and quality) of 8.9 is more than double Edler’s xGA60. Among Canucks defencemen, only Del Zotto and Stecher are worse by this metric. This indicates that Hutton is allowing less shots overall, but more shots from more dangerous locations. Clearly, there is still work to be done.
This isn’t entirely a flash in the pan for Hutton. His FA60 in his first two seasons were also among the best on the team, both well under the league average, and has decreased from rookie to sophomore seasons. I’m not sure if Hutton can keep his rate this low, but the progression he’s shown combined with the Canucks overall better penalty kill should keep this as his lowest season yet.
While on-ice metrics have been shown to be reliable and repeatable indicators, they still suffer from the fact that they are influenced by the other players that are on the ice at any given time. Tanev, for instance, has been severely hampered by playing with Michael Del Zotto since Edler went out. To work past some of these issues, we can used tracked microstats.
I’ve continued to track the Canucks’ shorthanded play that I originally mentioned in this article here. I watch each Canucks penalty kill multiple times over and note every time a better (defencemen or otherwise) touches the puck and what they subsequently do with it. I have since worked in 4-on-5 time-on-ice (taken from Corsica.hockey) to measure rates of each of the actions that I’ve recorded. Here’s what I’ve found so far.
Table 6 – Penalty Kill Microstats
|Player||Pos||TOI||Gains/60 ↓||Direct Clears/60||Giveaways/60||Direct Clear %||Team Clear %||Give away %|
|TEAM DEFENCEMEN AVERAGE||41.7||21.8||15.7||31.1%||60.9%||22.6%|
First of all, make note of Ben Hutton’s Gains per 60 minutes. This is a count of how many time per shorthanded hour Ben Hutton gains possession of the puck for his team, be it by recovering loose pucks, intercepting passes, or stealing it from opponents. By rate, Hutton leads all Canucks in terms of gaining possession for his team. After that, he does a decent job of clearing the zone, with 33% of his possession ending in direct zone clears (third highest among Canuck defencemen), and just a 12.5% failure rate (second lowest among Canuck defencemen).
The video below shows examples of some of the things mentioned above, including possession gains and controlled zone exits, as well as the Derek Dorsett shorthanded goal, which all began when Hutton recovered a puck from an opposing forward and made a deft, short little pass to partner Chris Tanev while under double coverage.
There’s one area that we haven’t touched on yet, and it’s a very important one: production. Expected goals, controlled carries, clean exits, those are all nice, but the goal of the game is to outscore the opponent, and that means actually getting the puck in the net. To this point in the 2017-18, Hutton hasn’t had much success with that. He has just one point in nine games, a power play assist on a Bo Horvat goal. (Though, with the Canucks power play being as bad as it is, that one power play point has him tied for fourth on the team, one point out of the lead).
He has a history of producing though. In his rookie season, he led Canucks defencemen in points with 25 – just as Troy Stecher did in his respective rookie season last year – including seven points on the power play. The points are likely to start coming at some point, given his shot rate and shot assist rate, on the power play and at even strength. His 3.7% on-ice shooting percentage at 5-on-4 is one of the lowest in the league, and is due to spike at some point.
Having laid out Ben Hutton’s abilities in each different situation, I think we have a pretty good idea of what he is at this point in his career. He still has a propensity for the occasional egregious error, but that the end of the day, the numbers that he puts up are among the best that Canucks defencemen have to offer.
I’d also like to add that I wasn’t just cherry picking stats that I thought would make Hutton look good. I specifically used stats for actions that I place value in, and/or ones that have previously shown to be of great predictive value. While on-ice stats are nice and convenient, Hutton’s chart-topping performances in areas like clearing his own zone, preventing entries into his own zone, offensive contributions on the power play, and creating turnovers and clearing the zone on the penalty kill are all extremely positive signs in my book.
All of the current season stats used in this article have a relatively small but growing sample of eight or nine games (depending on if they are hand-tracked or downloaded) and could regress as the season goes on. It’s my opinion that the microstats are going to be more stable than the on-ice stats, and thus more representative, but it’s hard to know that at this point. Later on in the season, I’ll perform some split half analyses on them to see how much variability and randomness there is to them. In the meantime, I think we can be fairly satisfied that the numbers that Hutton has put up so far this season are in line with reasonable growth from seasons previous, so the conclusions aren’t solely based on small samples.
At this point, I’ve come to think of Hutton as the new wave’s Alex Edler. I’m still not saying he’s a top pairing defenceman – I mean in terms of how the public views him.
This defenceman puts up decent point totals, he’s a solid power play quarterback, and he does a ton of little things well defensively that make him highly valuable in his own end and on the penalty kill. Yet, because he’s prone to the occasional mental gaffe, he’s seen as overrated and underwhelming by surface-level fans who don’t have the patience to dig deeper or the knowledge of what to watch for.
Am I talking about Ben Hutton or Alex Edler? I don’t know. You decide.
In my opinion, Ben Hutton already is a top four defenceman. He’d probably be one on most teams, and he certainly is one of a team as thin on defence as the Canucks. He’s one of their best power play options on the blue line, and a reliable enough penalty killer to be on a regular rotation.
So I’ll ask one last time: is Ben Hutton better than you think he is? It depends entirely on your current opinion of him. If your impression of him is considerably lower than the one I just laid out, then I’d have to say the answer is yes.
* The term adjusted used herein refers to score, zone, and venue adjusted, as calculated by Manny Perry at Corsica.hockey.
Sportsnet 650 quotes are from the October 6th episode of The Playbook. All on-ice shot based data, including defensive pairings, is courtesy of Corsica.hockey, unless otherwise mentioned. Opposition data is courtesy of Natural Stat Trick. 5-on-5 zone exits, zone entries, neutral zone defence, and shot assist microstats tracked by Darryl Keeping (@dkeeping). Penalty kill microstats tracked by myself. Video is from Sportsnet via NHL.tv.