Ben Hutton already making a big impact with Canucks

Ryan Miller made 47 saves and Radim Vrbata scored in the shootout to help the Vancouver Canucks defeat the New York Islanders.

After the game, Vancouver Canucks defenseman Ben Hutton was smiling from ear to ear, but that isn’t an uncommon sight in the Canucks’ locker-room.

What was more unique on this snowy Sunday evening in Brooklyn is that Hutton was holding tightly on to a game puck. It was wrapped with tape, which had been scrawled on with a blue sharpie, a souvenir to celebrate the first goal of his NHL career.

“I have a few pucks back home,” Hutton said of his memento. “If I get a puck during the year I’ll keep it for the year then put it up on the shelf back home.

“I have about six, first college goal, first NHL point, first college hat trick. Stuff like that.”

Though it took Hutton nearly 40 games to find the back of the net, his offensive contributions have been impossible to miss. For NHL defencemen, after all, there are other ways of contributing offensively.

“It’s not all about points,” Hutton concurred on Sunday. “If you’re in there, making the outlet pass to help the forwards get in on the rush, or helping to keep the puck down low and making a nice pass…

“The goal doesn’t change how I feel about my season.”

Even though Hutton has been snake-bit offensively, he still leads all Vancouver defencemen in even-strength point scoring rate. On a club that hasn’t generated much offence from the back end, Hutton has four primary assists in 5-on-5 situations. No other Canucks blue-liner has more than two.

More importantly, the Canucks are a more threatening team with Hutton on the ice. Relative to the performance of his club, Hutton’s on-ice presence has been worth better than two additional shots per 60 minutes.

As a rookie defenseman, Hutton is already able to successfully create an environment where the Canucks are more likely to score goals. If he keeps that up, the points will come.

Two weeks ago Hutton was all smiles, which is typical for him, even as he fielded questions for 12 minutes about how he had yet to score a goal at the NHL level.

“There have been times when I’ve been a little bit frustrated,” Hutton admitted at the time, “where I’ve hit a post or should’ve delayed a little bit longer before I shot.”

As Hutton tried to remain confident, his teammates offered advice. Dan Hamhuis, even through a gruesome injury, would give him notes on player tendencies and gap control. Chris Tanev would share some thoughts on walking the line, and getting shots through.

And Vancouver’s more veteran blue-liners also chirped the youngest member of their defence corps over his lack of goals.

“Couple of the D, (Matt Bartkowski) and (Tanev), were telling me how many games it took for them to score a goal,” Hutton told Sportsnet on Sunday, referring to two teammates for whom it took 63 and 137 NHL games respectively to net their first goal. “They were telling me I was going to break the record or whatever.

“I was saying ‘no way, that’s not happening.’ I definitely didn’t want to look and see a big zero in the goal column (at the end of the year), but it changed tonight, so hopefully it goes from one to two and two to three.”

There’s little doubt that it will. Hutton profiles as an offensive defenceman at the NHL level and there are already any number of promising signs that a breakout is more a matter of ‘when’ than ‘if’.

The peripheral numbers are all sparkling. Hutton leads all Canucks blue-liners by shot-attempt differential, and is second by the rate of penalties drawn, which is often a good indication of a player’s raw puck-moving ability.

He’s seemed to particularly excel at getting pucks to the net. No everyday NHL defenceman with an even-strength shot rate as high as Hutton’s has taken a lower rate of attempts, according to Put simply, in an era where blocking point shots is maniacally stressed by NHL coaches, Vancouver’s 22-year-old rookie is as good as anyone in hockey at threading the needle.

On a more granular level, Montreal-based statistics tracking firm Sportlogiq tracks personal puck possession rates. Hutton leads all Canucks defenders by this category, and is in the top-45 among all NHL blue-liners. He’s also the club-house leader by possession-driving plays – a category that takes into account everything from successful stretch and outlet passes to controlled zone entries – and rates in the top-30 among regular NHL defencemen.

The quality puck possession indicators are huge, particularly for a Canucks team that struggles to control the run of play.

As auspicious as Hutton’s rookie season has been, it’s worth noting that the Canucks have been disciplined about keeping Hutton in a prescribed role. In contrast with Bo Horvat and Jared McCann, who have been thrown into the deep end at times as a result of injuries, the Canucks have kept Hutton on the third pair – even as the second pair struggled through long-term injuries to left-handed shooting defensemen like Hamhuis and Luca Sbisa.

Usage aside, Willie Desjardins indicated on Sunday that what he most admires about Hutton’s game is his all-around assertiveness.

“What I like best about him is how when the game gets close and hard he seems to step up and try to take charge a bit,” Desjardins told reporters on Sunday. “That’s good for a young player to have that in him.

“He’s not trying to hang on, he wants to be a factor.”

The affable 22-year-old defenceman has certainly been a factor in his rookie season in Vancouver, and a major bright spot. For an organization lacking in both credible top-four options and high-end defensive prospects, it’s possible that no single development this season is of as much long-term consequence as Hutton’s emergence as a cost-controlled young blue-liner capable of providing effective minutes every night.

Goals are great and worth celebrating, but Hutton’s impact in his rookie season extends well beyond that.