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It doesn’t make sense to keep scratching Ben Hutton

Hutton is far from the Canucks' biggest problem on defence.
Ben Hutton skates the puck up ice for the Canucks.
Ben Hutton skates the puck up ice for the Canucks.

Ben Hutton created some high expectations with his rookie season. The 22-year-old wasn’t expected to make the jump directly to the NHL after finishing his college career, but he surprised everyone when he made the Canucks straight out of training camp. The surprises continued when he led all Canucks defencemen in scoring with 25 points in 75 games.

It seemed like the sky was the limit: the conventional wisdom is that defencemen take longer to develop and don’t hit their peak until their late twenties, so seeing him put up 25 points at such a young age boded well for his future.

Here’s the thing: the conventional wisdom is likely very flawed. It’s more likely that defencemen plateau at around 22-25. With that in mind, it’s posssible, perhaps even likely, that Hutton’s 22-year-old rookie season is a lot more representative of his peak than of a jumping off point to reach higher heights.

In his sophomore season, Hutton scored a few more goals, but wound up with just 19 points, a disappointment if you were hoping for him to build off his 25 points the year before. And this season, the points just haven’t come for Hutton. He has only 6 points through 37 games, a pace of just 13 points over the course of a full 82-game season.

Of course, Hutton won’t be playing 82 games, but not because of injuries like several other Canucks defencemen. Instead, Hutton has been a healthy scratch for three of the last four games and, judging by the Canucks’ practice lines, he’s likely to be scratched again on Saturday against the Leafs.

 

 

Hutton has become a polarizing player this season, with many fans questioning his defensive play, while suggesting his offensive upside doesn’t make up for his defensive deficiencies.

While Hutton certainly has his flaws, selecting him as the player to scratch is baffling for several reasons. The first and biggest is that he’s far from the Canucks’ biggest issue on defence.

Let’s look at each Canucks defenceman and focus on their defensive numbers. The chart below is rated by corsi percentage, which refers to the percentage of shot attempts taken by the Canucks when they are on the ice at 5-on-5 and is used as a proxy for puck possession. The rest of the numbers are numbers against measured per 60 minutes of ice time: corsi, fenwick (unblocked shot attempts), shots on goal, goals, scoring chances, and high-danger chances.

Player TOI/GP CF% CA/60 FA/60 SA/60 GA/60 SCA/60 HDCA/60
Derrick Pouliot 15.30 50.93 53.30 39.42 29.67 2.97 28.08 10.38
Troy Stecher 14.20 49.86 56.72 46.00 33.64 2.60 29.26 9.91
Christopher Tanev 15.63 49.35 51.97 42.08 29.53 2.81 28.05 10.93
Alex Biega 13.67 49.02 59.98 45.35 33.65 1.88 30.09 13.17
Ben Hutton 15.37 48.30 54.65 44.42 31.44 2.43 27.64 9.39
Alexander Edler 16.14 45.82 62.79 45.27 32.13 2.39 33.06 10.75
Michael Del Zotto 16.02 45.01 63.96 48.79 36.43 3.09 35.68 13.58
Erik Gudbranson 14.33 42.90 62.96 48.23 33.96 1.71 31.95 11.48


Hutton is pretty low in corsi percentage, but above three other Canucks defencemen: Alex Edler, Michael Del Zotto, and Erik Gudbranson.

It gets interesting when you look at his defensive numbers. Hutton is third behind Chris Tanev and Derrick Pouliot when it comes to corsi against, ie. the number of shot attempts taken by the opposition when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5.

That trend continues throughout: Hutton is third in fenwick against, third in shots on goal against, and fourth in goals against. When you look at scoring chances and high-danger chances, as measured by Natural Stat Trick, Hutton rockets up to the top of the Canucks defence.

What this suggests is that while Hutton has made some big, noticeable mistakes on defence that have led to dangerous chances and goals against, he overall actually allows fewer dangerous chances than the rest of the Canucks defence. Overall, the Canucks defence is better when he’s playing.

The small sample size of his three healthy scratches suggests the same. The Canucks have given up 17 goals in those three games.

When we look at individual defence pairings, something jumps out. Let’s look at all the pairings that have played at least 100 minutes together this season and rank them by corsi percentage

Left D Right D TOI CF/60 CA/60 CF% xGF/60 xGA/60 xGF%
Ben Hutton Chris Tanev 189.07 50.14 46.97 51.63 2.11 1.79 54.11
Ben Hutton Troy Stecher 148.52 55.75 52.52 51.49 1.90 2.57 42.50
Alex Edler Derrick Pouliot 173.93 53.81 56.92 48.60 2.22 2.34 48.71
Michael Del Zotto Alex Biega 146.30 60.29 70.95 45.94 2.69 2.95 47.71
Michael Del Zotto Derrick Pouliot 168.35 45.62 54.89 45.39 1.85 2.45 42.95
Alex Edler Chris Tanev 123.22 41.39 56.00 42.50 1.68 2.53 39.95
Ben Hutton Erik Gudbranson 170.17 40.55 58.18 41.07 1.43 2.06 41.01
Michael Del Zotto Erik Gudbranson 135.83 45.06 69.79 39.23 1.56 2.70 36.62


The top two Canucks pairings by corsi percentage both feature Ben Hutton, with the best pairing being Hutton and Tanev. They are also the only two pairings above 50% in corsi; the only pairings that have played 100 minutes together and seen the Canucks out-shoot their opposition have had Hutton on the left side.

There is one pairing near the bottom of the chart that features Hutton: when Hutton has been paired with Erik Gudbranson, they get badly, brutally out-shot.

If we get a little fancier with our stats and look at Expected Goals, as calculated by Corsica, the Hutton-Tanev pairing still remain at the top, largely because of their work in the defensive zone. The Hutton-Stecher pairing, on the other hand, does suffer when you look at Expected Goals, but still ends up better than both Gudbranson pairings.

When I look at these statistics, Hutton doesn’t worry me at all. I do get worried about Edler, Del Zotto, and Gudbranson. Edler and Tanev don’t look anything like the elite shutdown pairing they were a couple years ago and shouldn’t be paired together anymore. Del Zotto has been decent offensively, but has struggled in the defensive zone, particularly on the penalty kill.

Speaking of the penalty kill, Hutton has proven to be a surprisingly effective penalty killer. His active stick and puck pursuit make him a lot better shorthanded than you might expect.

When Hutton was first made a healthy scratch, it wasn’t a big deal. As much as Hutton hasn’t been bad this season, he has underwhelmed at times and seems capable of a lot more. When he returned to the lineup and had two assists to go with an eye-catching hit on Dustin Brown in the neutral zone, it seemed safe to expect that his days of being a healthy scratch were over.

Instead, he was scratched again, perhaps because of a defensive error on a late goal. Here’s the thing: his error was compounded by defensive errors by other Canucks on the ice and he had a better game than Del Zotto, who struggled in a shutdown role with Tanev. It’s hard to fathom him spending this much time in the press box.

Head coach Travis Green clarified that “it wasn’t anything glaring” that led to Hutton being a healthy scratch. “I could have kept him in the lineup and been fine with it," he said.

“When we talked, he agreed with me that his game had slipped a bit," Green continued prior to him getting back in the lineup against the St. Louis Blues. "When you sit out for a couple of games, it’s funny what it will do to a player and his psyche and his energy level and compete level. It always seems to rise and we hope it’s the case here."

In many ways, Hutton is like an itch. Some fans might find him annoying, and it may feel good for a moment to scratch him, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get any better.

If there isn't anything "glaring" keeping Hutton in the press box, at this point he should be on the ice.