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Photo Credit: Brad Mills - USA TODAY Sports

Ben Hutton 2.0

Ben Hutton’s 61 game nightmare season is now in the review mirror – a season in which he found himself a regular healthy scratch to go along with being publicly called out by head coach Travis Green for his unfocused approach and lack of commitment to fitness.

Evidently the ‘tough love’ approach got through to Hutton, as he reported to camp in far better shape than ever seen previously. Credit to Green for helping a young player do all they can to put themselves in a position to succeed.

So has this new commitment to fitness impacted Hutton’s underlying numbers? For reference, I’ll rewind to last season and start by taking a look at his neutral zone defensive numbers.

Diving into my data from last year, Ben Hutton was breaking up 15.62% of attempted entries against, while forcing the opposition to dump the puck in 45.09% of the time. When we add it all up, teams were gaining the offensive zone with control against Hutton under 40% of the time, which is very good.

In a league-wide sample, these numbers were good enough to rank in the 90th percentile of defenders at preventing controlled zone entries according to Cory Sznajder’s manually tracked data.

But that was the comfortable, unmotivated, out of shape Ben Hutton who sacrificed playing time for cracker snack time.

How’s the new version of Hutton doing? The vegetable loving gym rat, 2.0 version – lets take a look.

So if last years numbers had Hutton in the top 10% of defenders, I speculate this years numbers with have Ben Hutton hovering among the elite in the top 1%.

In fact, Hutton’s neutral zone defensive numbers are so impressive this season, no Canuck is comparable. To find any player remotely close, I had to sift through my data tracked for last years prospects. I came across one of my favourites from last year, New York Rangers, first round, 22nd pick overall, the underrated, K’Andre Miller.

Miller was in the U.S. National Team Development Program, playing USHL and NCAA competition. He was an absolute beast in the neutral zone which led to a microscopic 2.80 entries against when targeted per hour. This year, Hutton is allowing 7.78 controlled entries against/60. He’s making a very difficult repeatable skill look easy at the NHL level – the struggle to gain the zone versus Hutton is real as we’ll see in the following clips.

*The closest Canuck is Chris Tanev who is operating at a respectable rate of 12.19.

Here’s one of the league’s elite at gaining the offensive zone, Nathan Mackinnon versus Ben Hutton. With some assistance from Little Things Loui and Bo Horvat keeping Mackinnon to the right side of the rink, Mackinnon fails to dump the puck past Hutton who held the blue-line with a timely stick check. Notice how quickly that gap closes as Hutton widens his stance.

Here’s an aggressive read against another one of the leagues best, Evgeni Malkin. A well-timed chop a few feet inside the blue-line gains possession for Ben Hutton and the Canucks. The critical first step of creating offence, regaining control of the puck.

Here we’ve got Sid in a clean one on one versus Hutton – watch that gap shrink as another great stick-check breaks up the play putting Sid and Penguins offside.

When you realize you just tried to gain zone versus one of the leagues elite! Had to include the Crosby reaction here.

 

Alright, alright, he’s good in the neutral zone, we get it, right? Some of the Hutton haters liked to cling to the “You can’t just be good in the neutral zone” take, which has never been the case, not once. At least not since I’ve started manually tracking the Canucks last year.

Another strength of Hutton’s has been his ability to exit the defensive zone with control of the puck. Additionally, his ability to skate the puck out of the zone, which is the optimal controlled zone exit. Last season, Hutton’s controlled zone exit rate of 42.80% was good for third on the team trailing Chris Tanev and Derrick Pouliot. Hutton’s individual skate out rate of 11.16% was good for second on the team behind Stecher.

This year, the trend continues. For much of the season, Hutton has led the Canucks in controlled zone exit percentage. He’s only recently been passed by Troy Stecher who now carries a 42.37% rate. Hutton’s rate of 41.60% is still good for second on the team.

Furthermore, Hutton keeps the mistakes to a minimum with the puck in the defensive zone. He doesn’t give the puck away or ice it as often as his teammates. Last year Hutton’s fail rate in the defensive zone of 14.12% was good enough for second on the team trailing only Tanev. This year, Hutton’s actually improved his fail rate to an even 12% which is again, only trailing Tanev. Perhaps his newfound commitment to fitness is leading to less mental mistakes on the ice?

So those observations that bounce around regarding Hutton’s game that you’ve likely heard before “Oh, but he makes too many mistakes” or the “He takes too long with the puck” simply aren’t true, it’s just an individual’s confirmation bias getting the best of them.

Here’s Hutton taking too long, I mean, allowing the passing lane to materialize so he can throw a hard pass through a lane he’s created instead of going off the boards and hoping for a good bounce.

Here’s Hutton in a high pressure situation on his backhand, surrounded by Blackhawks. As soon as Blackhawks defender cuts towards Hutton, he quickly zips a pass into the middle to give Schaller an opportunity to create a two on one.

Here’s Hutton using Carl Haglein’s own speed against him, drawing him in while looking into the middle of the ice, a quick change of pace and a cut around the F1 which opens a wide open lane for a cross-ice pass for the controlled exit.

Here’s Hutton in another tough situation on his backhand – instead of panicking and throwing the puck up the boards, he defuses the situation with poise and a quick shoulder check. Hutton’s awareness helps him identify he has support deep in the pocket – a well-executed backhand pass hits Bo Horvat in stride who is sent exiting the zone with speed while two forecheckers are caught behind the play.

 

So Hutton can defend the blue-line at an elite level and he’s competent with the puck. By my standards, this qualifies to profile Hutton as a two-way defender. His teammates can count on Hutton to make the correct and often aggressive read in the neutral zone and rely on him to exit the zone. Not bad for $2.8 million these days!

An added bonus are the counting stats Hutton is producing this year. He’s put up four goals and six points in his first 16 games which matches his point total from last season. I view Hutton’s season offensively last year as a one-off – he should be right back to producing anywhere from 20-30 points which is fine considering his PP deployment will be limited when Alex Edler returns.

With the concerns surrounding Hutton fading as the season progresses, the question becomes: what does management do with Hutton? Do they double down on their investment and bring back the 25-year old whose contract is expiring after this season? The way the left-side of the Canucks defense has been constructed leaves the team in a complicated situation.

Alex Edler and Michael Del Zotto are about to become unrestricted free agents at years end, with Derrick Pouliot set to become a restricted free agent, like Hutton.

It’s not like you can go into next year with the left-side of your defense led by two rookies in Quinn Hughes and Olli Juolevi.

You’re also not fixing this in the thin UFA market led by Jake Gardiner and followed by a long awkward silence.

In my opinion, the Canucks have until the trade deadline to figure it out. If Hutton can maintain this consistent level of play into February, it’s an easy decision, you bring him back and can probably get him at a discounted rate and reasonable term due to last season.

If the wheels fall off Hutton’s game, and I don’t suspect that will happen, you bring back Alex Edler. As much as I like what Edler brings to the table, his value will never get any higher than at this year trade deadline. In past deadlines, Jim Benning has turned Jannik Hansen and Alex Burrows into Nikolay Goldobin and Jonathan Dahlen, you’d have to think a return for Edler would be an asset of that calibre at the very least.

But who knows? A lot can happen between now and February. If the Canucks are still in the playoff race when the time comes, that’ll even further complicate everything. For now, we’ll continue to enjoy Hutton’s new level of play and the fact that the Canucks are the highest scoring team in the Western Conference.



  • Freud

    Remember when Benning re-signed Hutton and wondered aloud whether Hutton was capable of scoring 50-60 pts?

    This is something a casual fan would say. Heck, he scored 25 pts as a rookie, that means he’ll score 50 as a vet! More evidence that Benning makes decisions with only a basic and simple minded understanding of what a player is actually about.

    Along comes Keeping showing Benning how informed decision making and evaluation actually works.

    • detox

      really? “More evidence that Benning makes decisions with only a basic and simple minded understanding of what a player is actually about.”

      come on Freud, what are you doing in JB’s head? I’m willing to stop watching Long Island Medium if you get your own show. <3

    • Defenceman Factory

      Benning and particularly Green have developed a young defenceman into a very effective player. Given Hutton’s performance he is providing very good value this year.

      Freud never says anything unless it’s negative. The best Freud can come up with is Benning over hyped a player. Oh the travesty.

      A fringe benefit of the Canucks success so far this season is Freud has had less to say.

  • North Van Halen

    This is why there’s a disconnect between stats and the eye test. Last year the stats guys couldn’t understand Green’s usage of Hutton. Great fancy stats, great underlying numbers. Why is he sitting?
    Because Green knew if he could get lazy, chubby Benny, to be in-shape, motivated Ben, there was another level he could reach. Lazy, chubby Benny had the ability to play in the league, but not to be a difference maker. In-shape, motivated Ben is a difference maker. Ben is is now quick enough and strong enough to be the guy the the Canucks thought he would be when they gave him $2.8mil. The guy we saw last year was just good enough to get by and that wasn’t good enough. The guy we’re seeing now is the one that gets resigned and is an anchor of the defence for years to come.
    Remember this stats guys the next time a young talented kid like Hutton sits behind a less talented, more professional player like Del Zotto (staring straight at JD Burke while saying it).

    • DogBreath

      … and to add to that, Green knew last year that if he had any hope with this defence in future years, a vastly improved Hutton had to be part of the solution, hence the tough love approach. So far, it appears that Green has a knack for playing tough love with some personalities and then rebuilding them (Hutton, Virtanen).

  • Matty T

    More proof that clueless Benning cannot function as an astute GM in todays NHL. Not only did he put unrealistic point tallies on Ben, he threw instant big money at the kid instead of inking him to a ‘show’ me’ bridge deal like the Gillis/Gilman braintrust have said they would’ve done. Unsurprisingly Ben took his foot off the gas and Greeny had to step in to salvage Hutty’s career.

    Still, a fantasic rebound from Ben who is turning into the kind of key puck mover on D that every team covets.

    Another key piece of the GMMG legacy in evidence here alongside Tanev, a resurgent Markstrom and the beast Bo Horvat. Thank you Mike for your service and legacy, Seattle’s gain is our loss, as the past five years of ineptitude have unequivocally proven.

  • Charlie Allnut

    I have to say this was a good read. People on this page think they are better hockey men than JB or TG, but the only jobs they have are the ones that nobody comments on, for very good reason. Freud is more of a Fraud.

  • Kanuckhotep

    After the way Ben Hutton played last season it was obvious he was on thin ice with mgmt and must admit had doubts about him going into this year. This is one example of one being thankfully wrong about BH#27’s performance in 18-19. Don’t really understand Corsi and analytics all that well so you must go with the eye and gut tests and the very affable, likeable Ben passes the exams IMO. Encouraging.

  • Fred-65

    I might well be scorned for making this point, as in “oh sure, hindsight etc etc but I never lost faith in Hutton. To me he had displayed more than adequate skills in his NCAA years, and his first year with the Canucks. So I believed he had what it take. He lacked physicality or truculence but many of todays players do … and do very well. What has always impressed me was his “cool” and skill to skate a problem away, and he does that now again and again. Here I’ll get more scorn because I think Pouliot has that skill too …. except Pouliot is too cool and wastes a good play by being way to casual and getting stripped, but he does have some high end skill. Which is why Pitt’s drafted him 8th O/A. However in Pouliot has reached the end of his try out phase, I hope he can turn it around but I kind of doubt it. By the end of this season Hutton can estabilish as a prominent NHL player. I don’t have faith in Vcr executives making the right choice. To me their focus is going to be on Hughes the saviour plus force feeding Juolevi onto the roster. If I was a betting man they trade Hutton for a late round draft pick and then kick themselves for the next 10 years 🙂

  • Good for Ben, keep it up.

    How can he go from one extreme to another in such a short period of time. There has to be more to this than just working out and showing up in better shape, although I understand the importance of that.

        • DJ_44

          I think I have given Hutton props and credit for his improvement on two disastrous seasons. Mostly it was conditioning.
          With a healthy Gudbranson stablizing the partnership, he is no longer a liability on the ice — except for playing the rush; that and any shift longer than 30 seconds in the defensive zone.

          I think Hutton is what he is, a bottom pairing/7th NHL Dman with flaws. He can handle the puck. He has above average instincts at the offensive blueline. Pump him up and trade him for a mid round draft pick.

          We have depth, especailly bottom pair LHD in Utica — Sautner, McEnemy, Briesbois. The team will loose nothing by replacing Hutton with any of them; they will gain if they replace DelZotto with any of them.

          He still has massive gafts in the games; they just have not cost the team as much this year. But credit where it is due: he has obviously worked hard, got into proper NHL shape and improved his game.

          • Chris the Curmudgeon

            I rarely bother to sign in just to trash a post, but congrats, you motivated me. It was somewhere around where you suggested three fringe pros could duplicate the performance of a guy playing at an elite level against first line NHL competition.

    • Silverback

      In one word…maturity. Amazing when your entire career is suddenly put into jeopardy, how you can have an epiphany and everything changes. Good on Hutton!

  • TD

    I sure hope Hutton gets more PP time. While recognizing Baer and Boeser are out, Pouliot has not shown any ability on the first PP. Hutton has been way better on the second PP. This should be obvious and Hutton should stay where he is when Edler returns.

    • Kanucked

      Sorry pressed post too soon.

      To continue, should the Canucks resign Hutton at the end of the season or trade him away during the season? I’m not convinced that Hutton, Hughes & Joulevi will be solid on the left side immediately. That said, it really depends on his market value. If the return is good for him, I would resign Edler after the season ends.

  • speering major

    Edler has a NTC. I think JB talks to Edler and sees what he wants to do. I don’t think it makes much of a difference with Hutton because JB should sign both. The only way I would move on from Edler is if he want excessive term. A rebuilding team with a ton of high end prospects on the left side doesn’t need to commit to an aging and injury prone guy like Edler for 5+ season.

    Out: Pouliot, MDZ
    In: Hughes OJ.

    If O.J. isn’t ready, bring in Biega, Chatfield, etc

  • Rodeobill

    From the eye test, he seems to skate it out of trouble this year rather than turning it over. I don’t want to trade him anymore. Not to take away from his obvious improvements, but the team in general has been playing many of the details well this year and I think this has had a synergistic effect on everyone. Green deserves credit not only for tough love, but putting together a team that works together as it should. It is hard to credit Hutton, for instance, with a successful breakout pass if no one gets open to pass it to. Even Guddy seems to be playing more confidently. Great article, btw!

  • EddyC

    Who’s the leading scorer on D for the Canucks? I notice that in the media nobody is talking about Gudbranson, I guess when you get it so wrong and spend 2 years throwing shade on a guy you just can’t see him anymore or admit they are wrong.

  • truthseeker

    If you have a young D man that’s working and can play in your top 4 then you resign him. It’s not even a question. If the team feels like Hutton has “put it together” and that he’ll carry it forward, then they should resign him to a long term deal. They’ll get him real cheap. Much better than watching him have another good season next year and then having him cost 5 million per rather than getting him at 3 or 4.

  • Dirty30

    As someone who has gone through some bad years, I’d hate to have them televised, criticized and written about repeatedly ad nauseum. Give Hutton credit for showing up regardless and actually making a comeback in his game.

    And this may be something he deals with in his career or it was an aberration— hopefully the latter and we see BH 2.0 from here on out.

    Keep him for a decent salary and term.

    Ideally, trade Edler to a contender with the door open for him to come back for a reasonable salary and term. JB should be able to make ‘taking a trade for the good of the team’ the first line of any future contract negotiations with Edler.

  • Smyl and Snepsts

    The picture for the article shows a major change in Hutton that the fancy stats never show or acknowledge. This year he is willing and able to compete in the board and net front battles that are so important to a defenseman. If only they could come up with a stat for “compete” and ” battle”.