That was the only number that mattered to Canucks head coach Travis Green when he looked back at Ben Hutton’s season.
Six assists. Zero goals. The only other Canucks defencemen with zero goals last season were Ashton Sautner and Philip Holm, who combined to play just six games. For Green, that simply wasn’t good enough.
“Ben had a tough year,” said Green. “He had six assists in 60-something games. I think he was a healthy scratch 12 times, something like that. In saying that, I want Ben Hutton to come back a better hockey player. That’s how your team gets better.”
The Canucks had one of the lowest-scoring defence corps in the entire NHL, so it’s understandable that Green would zero in on the only regular defenceman who didn’t score a goal. It’s particularly egregious since Hutton is seen as a puck-moving offensive defenceman.
His struggles stand in stark contrast to how he began his NHL career. In his rookie season, Hutton led the Canucks’ defence in scoring with 25 points in 75 games and was voted the team’s best defenceman by the fans.
It wasn’t just Canucks fans that fell for Hutton: he was even named to Team Canada at the World Championships, though his ice time was admittedly limited thanks to a very strong defence corps that year. When Team Canada won gold, however, Hutton was there on the ice, along with his Canucks teammate, Chris Tanev.
While Hutton still had one year left on his entry-level contract, his rookie year was enough for Jim Benning to decide he was a big part of the team’s future. He extended him for $2.8 million per year on a three-year deal. Now, what seemed like a solid bet is looking like a hasty decision.
Instead of a surefire top-four defenceman, Hutton is on the roster bubble, with veterans like Michael Del Zotto blocking the way ahead of him and prospects like Olli Juolevi pressuring him from behind. He was supposed to be part of the Canucks’ future; now he might not even be part of their present.
Analytics aficionados might suggest that the problem is not on Hutton’s end. If you look at some of his underlying numbers, Hutton was far from the worst defenceman on the Canucks. In fact, in some situations, he was one of their best.
“I know analytics say that Ben did some good things,” said Green. “At the end of the day, Ben Hutton had six assists in 61 games and I wasn’t thrilled with some of the things he was doing. His conditioning wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. I thought he could play better than he did on the ice and we pushed him to do that.”
“He’s right,” said Hutton. “Whether [my] analytics or special stats or whatever were good, at the end of the day there were only six assists. I didn’t score any goals. When I see that and hear that, obviously I’m frustrated and I wanna come back and get my numbers higher.”
It’s overly simplistic to say that Hutton’s “analytics” were good. In an interview setting, sometimes the shorthand of “underlying numbers” has to be used because there simply isn’t enough time to go into detail. The truth is, there are dozens of underlying numbers, ones lurking beneath the surface of the six assists pointed out by Green.
Some of those underlying numbers for Hutton were very, very good. Some were troublingly, undeniably bad.
Let’s take a look at some of those numbers and where Hutton ranked among Canucks defencemen last season. Let’s start with some defensive numbers, drawn from Natural Stat Trick.
- Corsi = all shot attempts, including ones that are blocked or missed the net
- Fenwick = unblocked shot attempts
In each of those statistics, Hutton was in the top half of the eight defencemen that played at least 500 minutes for the Canucks last season. In fact, when it comes to shot attempts and shots on goal against, Hutton was second only to Chris Tanev.
Hutton’s solid defensive numbers might surprise some people, though those familiar with his excellent work on the penalty kill might be less shocked. From the eye test, Hutton is prone to noticeable defensive gaffes, the type of gaffes that might get his head coach to say to the media “I wasn’t thrilled with some of the things he was doing” and say far harsher things to Hutton behind closed doors.
The issue with those noticeable gaffes is that they tend to stick in the memory, while the majority of quiet, effective defensive play passes by unnoticed. That’s why analytics can help. These specific statistics may not tell us how a player got those results, but it’s hard to argue with them: when Hutton was on the ice, the Canucks allowed fewer scoring chances, shots, and goals than when he wasn’t on the ice.
That isn’t the end of the story, however.
Hockey is a game of ratios: it isn’t just about preventing or scoring goals, but about scoring more goals than the other team. While Hutton’s defensive numbers were solid, he looked a lot worse offensively.
As Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters would say, “Well, there’s your problem.” The Canucks in general struggled to create offence at 5-on-5 last season, but that was particularly true with Hutton on the ice. While he wasn’t the worst Canucks defenceman by any of these metrics, he wasn’t good.
So, we have a conundrum. Hutton was better defensively than he appeared, but about as weak offensively as his six assists would suggest.
We can definitely delve deeper, however. We can start by looking at who he played with, as we know that has a larger impact on a player than who he plays against. That alone immediately provides some intriguing context to Hutton’s underlying numbers.
Hutton spent at least 100 minutes at 5-on-5 with four different defencemen last season. His most common defence partner was Chris Tanev, but he was moved around a lot.
When Hutton was with Tanev, however, they were a legitimately great pairing. When that pairing was on the ice, the Canucks out-shot, out-chanced, and out-scored their opposition. It wasn’t like Green sheltered that pairing either: they faced the same tough usage that Tanev faced all season long. That meant starting most of their shifts in the defensive zone while facing difficult competition.
What’s interesting about that pairing is that they still didn’t produce much offensively, though they had some good fortune when it came to goal-scoring. They were just dynamite defensively.
Certainly Tanev’s influence is felt here — when you play with great players, you tend to look better — but Hutton also seemed to significantly improve Tanev. When Tanev was paired with his other two most common partners, Michael Del Zotto and Alex Edler, the Canucks gave up a lot more defensively and created less offensively. The Canucks were badly out-chanced and out-scored when Tanev was paired with anyone other than Hutton.
Hutton didn’t have that effect on all of his defence partners, however. He and Derrick Pouliot were more dynamic offensively, but disastrous defensively. When he was with Troy Stecher, they seemed to control possession well, but gave up a scary number of scoring chances in the defensive zone.
The less said about the Hutton and Erik Gudbranson pairing, the better.
Excelling with one defence partner (and only one defence partner) is intriguing, but also concerning. What made him such a great fit for Tanev and why wasn’t he able to use those same attributes to succeed with other partners?
Again, we see it’s not as simple as saying that “Hutton’s analytics were good.” There’s a lot more going on here. Let’s look at it from another angle: regression-based Goals/Wins Above Replacement models.
The point of a GAR model is to rate how a player compares to a “replacement-level” player, as in a player that could be claimed off waivers or easily called up from the AHL. It measures this value over a replacement level player in goals.
Evolving Hockey is the home of Josh and Luke Younggren’s GAR/WAR model. According to their model, Hutton was the fifth most valuable defenceman on the Canucks last season, but that isn’t saying much.
You can see the breakdown of each player’s GAR by even-strength, power play, and shorthanded GAR, as well as that created by a player’s penalty differential. A player that puts their team in too many shorthanded situations by taking a lot more penalties than they draw can cost their team a lot of goals.
Hutton’s negative value at even-strength last season was made up for by his value on the penalty kill and avoiding taking penalties, but it’s still a bad sign. Of course, it’s an even worse sign that the Canucks had three defencemen that ranked as below replacement level last season and all three are returning this coming season.
At least Pouliot and Biega can hang their hats on working well together. Perhaps the key is to finding the right partner for Gudbranson, just like Tanev appears to be the right partner for Hutton.
GAR and WAR are meant to provide a broad overview of a player, so let’s get a little more granular with the last underlying numbers from Hutton’s season. Recent research suggests that shot-based statistics like corsi and fenwick are not necessarily the best metrics for assessing defencemen.
Instead, microstats can better predict a defenceman’s performance in the future.
Microstats refer to the measurement of what you might call “in-between actions,” ie. things that happen in between a shot attempt at one end of the ice and a shot attempt at the other end of the ice. That means things like zone exits, zone entries, and shot assists.
While traditional fancy stats like corsi and fenwick are better predictors for forwards, these microstats perform better when it comes to defencemen. That’s particularly the case for statistics like zone exits and entries.
How does Hutton measure up when it comes to these microstats? Pretty well. Let’s look at his numbers in comparison to a Canucks defenceman that looks fantastic by these metrics, Troy Stecher.
This also provides some of the “how” for Hutton’s offensive results. Last season, he simply did not create shot attempts, either personally or via passing. It’s night and day in comparison to Stecher.
Hutton looks good, however, when it comes to zone exits. He and Stecher have a similar profile in how effective they are at exiting the defensive zone with possession of the puck. That’s important, as dumping the puck out of the defensive zone only temporarily relieves pressure; it’s better than the alternative of being trapped in the defensive zone, but too often leads to scoring chances for the other team as they get another chance to gain the zone and set up.
Where Hutton excels is breaking up zone entries by the other team. Essentially, he is very good at closing down gaps in the neutral zone and protecting his own blue line.
This gives us a picture of how Hutton can put up such strong defensive numbers despite committing occasional defensive gaffes. He prevents opponents from gaining the zone in the first place, then is able to effectively move the puck out of the defensive zone with possession if they do.
Ultimately, however, being better than expected defensively won’t keep Hutton in the Canucks lineup.
“We pushed Ben to be better,” said Green at the end of the season. “He had a rough year and that happens. You go through adversity, how you handle it, how you come out of it determines a lot about, as an individual, your duration in the league and, as an organization, progressing and becoming a better team.”
“I think Ben Hutton needs to improve on his skating,” he added. “I think his conditioning can be better. Once his conditioning and his skating get a little better, I think Ben Hutton can still be a real good player in this league. He’s a guy we need to get more production from on our back end.”
Hutton took the criticism in stride.
“If he didn’t say anything or just didn’t care, I feel like that would almost be worse,” said Hutton. “If someone’s hard on you, it’s because they see you have more to give or they want more out of you, so he was hard on me, but at the end of the day, I’m hoping it helps me.”
“I’m going to grind all summer hard to make sure I come back one of the most conditioned guys on the team,” said Hutton.
“I lacked a little confidence, obviously, this year,” he added. “But I gotta gain that back and simply get out there. I’m a mobile defenceman, I can join up in the rush, but what I think I lacked this year, when I had the puck, was making plays, creating plays. My first year I was doing that and it was going well, but this year it didn’t. So I’m going to have to gain that confidence back and start looking to make plays again.”
If Hutton’s can continue to play unexpectedly well defensively and gain back some of the offence from his rookie season, he could get himself back in Green’s good graces.
Hopefully that will mean more than six assists.