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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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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.