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Why Ben Hutton’s 2018-19 Resurgence Was Oversold

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NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Vancouver Canucks Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

One storyline that emerged from the 2018-19 campaign was the idea that defenceman Ben Hutton has resurged; that he had returned to the player many thought he was in his rookie campaign, and had established himself as a legitimate presence in the team’s top four. For the Hutton camp, it set him up nicely for a year wherein he will need to be re-signed coming off a two-year deal at $2.8 million a year. However, it is also worth asking the question: just how good was Ben Hutton this past year, and how much is worth investing in him? Despite the positivity surrounding 26-year-old, it can be argued that he won’t be worth the pricepoint, and that the hype was exaggerated.

Among regular presences on the Canucks blue line, Hutton did not stand out in regards to puck possession and shot attempt metrics. He finished just fifth of seven in terms of CorsiFor% at 45.62%, and finished sixth in FenwickFor% at 44.97%. When looking at Expected Goals — the total goals a player is expected to score when he is on the ice — Hutton also ranks sixth at 43.34%, ahead of only the much maligned Erik Gudbranson. When adjusting for higher danger chances, it does not improve, with his on-ice share standing at just 42.24% (again sixth ahead of just Gudbranson).

When comparing relative to his 2017-18 numbers — a season where he received near endless criticism by the fanbase, media, and coaching staff — the adulation becomes even less justified. That season, he ranked third on the Canucks defence in CorsiFor% at 49.15%, and fourth in FenwickFor% at 47.51% — stronger standalone numbers, and in a team context. By the other metrics mentioned above — high danger chances and Expected Goals share — he ranks second at 48.82% and third at 48.11%. Evidently, the 2017-18 verson of Ben Hutton did not deserve the degree of criticism received, and actually proved fairly effective by most metrics. Why, then, were such critiques lobbied with such frequency? There are three factors that may have contributed. The first, and perhaps most obvious (though not very quantifiable) one is that the mistakes made by Hutton were more obvious and reminiscent of Luca Sbisa’s classic ‘pizzas’. The second is that the offensive numbers were nearly non-existent. He scored just six points — all assists — in 61 contests. Thirdly, Hutton’s PDO — on-ice save percentage plus on-ice shooting percentage, and generally seen as a barometer for luck — was sixth of seven players. When looking at the various components of his season, it’s fair to say that much of the criticism was undue, and that this overly negative outlook led observers to overstate just how good he was in 2018-19.

Of course, there are some arguments in favor of Hutton’s season being a successful one. He played the second most total minutes (behind Troy Stecher) and at 17:37 minutes per game played more on average than any Canucks blue liner outside of Alex Edler. He also played the second most minutes (behind Stecher) while the team was trailing, and was middle of the pack at 49.53% offensive zone starts. These, it can be argued, contributed to his below-average possession metrics. Offensively, he also rebounded to an extent, posting a solid five goals and 20 points. There is certainly value to these topline numbers, and some may present them as evidence of his value.

Overall, while Hutton proved to be a fairly valuable player for the Canucks on the volume of minutes alone, the underlying data points to a season that was not overly impressive. This is not to say that he has no upside — the potential for him to be a regular top four defender absolutely exists. The bigger question is whether or not the potential is great enough to offer him a major contract. With Edler needing (and presumably getting) a contract extension, and Quinn Hughes looking ready to be an impact player, there may not be a place for him on a first or second pairing. At the right price, or if Edler is not brought back, a Hutton extension would not be problematic. However, it is also important to make judgements based on overcompensating for an underrated 2017-18 season, nor to oversell what Hutton is as a player. It is this sort of decision making — with a long-term vision and realistic expectations — that will lead the Canucks to success, but what has somewhat alluded management to-date.