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Ben Hutton’s Transition Game Is Valuable To the Canucks

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It was less than a year and a half ago when management pegged Ben Hutton as a surefire top 4 defenceman- the type possibly even capable of scoring 50-60 points.

While that says more about Vancouver’s pro scouting than it does about Hutton’s ability, it’d also be an understatement to say that the 24-year-old has disappointed since his 25 point rookie season two years ago.

Hutton’s decline began last season when he failed to crack 20 points. That offensive regression has continued this season with the former 5th round pick having registered just six assists in 59 games.

More importantly, Hutton has lost his regular spot in the lineup— sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch for 12 games since December due to nonchalant defensive play, frequent turnovers, and off-ice conditioning concerns.

All those qualms are valid to varying degrees, and with Hutton set to turn 25-years-old in less than a month, he’s got little room to develop. Compound all those factors with his aforementioned offensive decline and many fans are left wondering what Hutton brings to the table.

Enter micro-stats. Whereas traditional analytics can be distorted by the other nine players on the ice, micro-stats isolate individual players and quantify specific elements of zone play. They’re a great tool to use alongside on-ice advanced stats and the eye test to create a complete picture of a player’s abilities.

For defensemen, two of the most important micro-stats relate to neutral zone defence and zone exits. Both are critical aspects of defending in a league that emphasizes speed and skill.

The Athletic’s Corey Sznajder tracks this data, and in the Canucks’ sample he’s included, Ben Hutton shows very well— particularly with his ability to defend the blueline.

  • Entry Attempts Against: Amount of times an opposing player tried to gain the offensive zone against said defenceman
  • Carry-in %: Percentage of attempts where the opposing team is able to enter the offensive zone with puck possession(skating or passing the puck in versus dumping it in)
  • Break up %: Percentage of attempts where the defenceman breaks up the play(intercepting a pass, poking the puck away from the carrier, forcing an offside)

Hutton leads Canucks’ defensemen in both carry-in and break-up percentage.

A low carry-in percentage means the opposing team struggles to enter the offensive zone with possession of the puck. This helps defensively because possession entries are twice as likely to produce shot attempts and nearly twice as likely to result in goals compared to dump-ins.

The data above suggests that Hutton does well to maintain tight gap control in the neutral zone to prevent the time and space required for possession entries. Furthermore, he is able to anticipate the opposition’s breakout attempts to create turnovers.

The caveat is that the sample includes only 14 games that were tracked intermittently throughout this season. To combat the small sample size, let’s look at a graph from Sean Tierney, who has visualized Corey Sznajder’s 24 game data from last season.

The further right you move on the graph, the better the defenceman is at forcing neutral zone turnovers. Meanwhile, the higher you go on the graph, the better they are at defending against possession entries.

Hutton slots behind Tanev and Gudbranson as the only Canucks’ defensemen in the ideal top-right quadrant. Combine last year’s results with this season’s, and you have nearly half a season’s worth of data that highlights Hutton’s proficiency at defending the blueline.

On the flipside, one of the biggest criticisms with Hutton has been his defensive zone turnovers. Coaches and fans are right to malign these mistakes because 24% of five-on-five goals begin with a failed zone exit by the opposing team.

A failed zone exit is counted when a defenceman fails to move the puck out of his own zone on an exit attempt. This includes failed clearances, intercepted passes, and instances where the defenceman is stripped of the puck by an opposition forward.

Turnovers give the opposing team the puck in prime offensive scoring positions, whereas failed clearances keep the team hemmed in their own zone.

You might be surprised to find out though that Hutton has the lowest rate of failed exits among Canucks’ defensemen in Corey’s sample for this season.

Not only is Hutton’s failure rate low, but he’s also excelled at leading possession breakouts.

  • Attempts: Number of zone exit attempts
  • Possession Exit %: Percentage of attempts that result in the defensive team exiting their zone with possession of the puck(Defenceman either passes the puck to a player in the neutral zone or skates it out himself)

Possession exits are crucial for steering the puck out of danger and orchestrating offensive counterattacks.

Hutton is a few ticks below team-leader Pouliot in possession exits, but the former appears to be considerably more responsible in limiting turnovers.

The 24-year-old’s puck-moving skills are evident in last season’s 24 game sample as well.

Hutton and Tanev are the only Canucks’ defensemen above 40% for possession exits. The difference is that the former’s failure rate is a bit high in spite of it being the fourth-best mark among the group.

Part of that is likely due to Hutton’s partnership with Erik Gudbranson for a significant portion of last season. Since Gudbranson isn’t a great puck mover, he puts pressure on his partner to do the bulk of transition work.

Hutton’s success relative to his peers at puck-moving and defending the blue line doesn’t mean a whole a lot when you consider the Canucks’ incompetence in both regards. We can, however, look at Hutton’s performance in those areas this season relative to other NHL defensemen.

The top-right quadrant is where you’ll find elite transition defensemen like Hampus Lindholm, PK Subban, Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, and Charlie McAvoy among others.

Hutton isn’t as dominant as the aforementioned defensemen, but he stands out as the only Canucks’ representative in that quadrant.

Even when considering all this, there’s no question that Ben Hutton has largely underwhelmed relative to the potential he flashed in his rookie season. That being said, the Canucks need help with both moving the puck out of their own zone and defending against possession entries— two areas that the former 5th round pick excels at.

Given this, it’s still fair to believe that Hutton provides value for the Canucks— especially if he can improve his conditioning to endear himself to the coaching staff.