VANCOUVER – Conditioning was not Ben Hutton’s biggest problem last season, but merely his most public and embarrassing one.
The Vancouver Canucks defenceman’s gravest problem was that he utterly lost the confidence of coach Travis Green, who finally outed Hutton on his unsatisfactory conditioning when pressed by reporters demanding why a 24-year-old player previously viewed as a future core piece could become a regular healthy scratch.
“I’d like to see his conditioning be higher,” Green said last spring. “We talk to lots of our guys about becoming good pros and making sure they’re ready to play every day. That’s part of being in the league.”
Even Green’s late-season disclosure that Hutton’s injured foot had become infected seemed like a veiled indictment. What was Hutton doing while injured that allowed the infection?
At one point, Green pointed out that Hutton was supposed to be an offensive defenceman and yet had only six assists. That was Hutton’s entire offensive output for 61 games – just two seasons after he made the Canucks straight out of the University of Maine and posted 25 points in 75 games as a 22-year-old NHL rookie.
Truly, if you had to name a Canuck last April, still under contract, least likely to be back in Vancouver in September, Hutton would have been an overwhelming favourite.
And he probably wouldn’t have been back had his game not cratered so deeply that Hutton had no trade value. Less than two years earlier, the Canucks had balked at including Hutton in a trade package for former Buffalo Sabre Evander Kane. And this off-season the team couldn’t give away Hutton and the $2.8-million salary bestowed on him after his rookie year.
Now here he is, back with the Canucks, noticeably leaner and lighter after spending the summer in an Ottawa gym with training partner Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers. And on Tuesday night, in Vancouver’s first pre-season game, Hutton was expected to be on the Canucks’ first-unit power play against the Edmonton Oilers.
After Hutton fulfilled his pledge to get in shape, Green promised him a “clean slate” and a fair chance to make the Canucks lineup this fall. So far, so good.
“Since the first day I came back in here, I feel like it has been a clean sheet,” Hutton said Tuesday morning at Rogers Arena. “It’s up to me to earn my ice and opportunity. That’s fair.”
Asked whether it was harder last season not playing or having his issues made public, he said: “Both were obviously tough. I want to be on the ice, so I’d say that was the hardest thing. Coming to the rink and not being able to go on the ice and battle with the guys, that hurt a lot.
“But with things coming out (in public), the media is never easy on you. That was tough. It was a tough year all around. I didn’t produce, I was getting scratched for the first time, and the media was blowing up all over the place. I’ve just got to put it behind me. Every player faces adversity and it’s how you handle it.”
There’s a sound theory that Hutton’s relative lack of adversity his first couple of seasons under former head coach Willie Desjardins left him unprepared mentally to handle the demands of Green.
Think about it: Hutton was a fifth-round draft pick out of Nepean of the Central Canada Hockey League who at his first NHL training camp played his way on to an awful Canucks team, and a couple of months into his second season was awarded a two-year, $5.6-million extension.
The Canucks essentially handed Hutton the keys to the defence, and then Green came in and wanted them back.
“I kind of caught everyone off-guard making the team coming out of college,” Hutton agreed. “But there is no easy road to the NHL; you’ve got to earn your ice and your spot.
“It’s easy to look back (at last season) and say, ‘OK, you were snake-bit the first part of the year and in the end, you weren’t playing.’ But no matter what, six assists is six assists. I was not happy with that at all.”
The six-foot-three blueliner dropped about five pounds, to 203, and became much leaner over the summer. Hutton said he practised getting his shot through traffic, and believes his ability to move the puck from his zone and skate up ice will allow him to re-launch his NHL career.
“I think he has to get more than six assists, that’s for sure,” Green said Tuesday. “But we’re asking for a lot of our D to produce more and be better hockey players. Maybe Ben Hutton can play against top lines. We’ll see. Maybe he took a big jump and he’s playing the power play. Who knows? It’s not just based on points. (But) I think if Ben Hutton plays his best hockey, he’s going to get more than six points.”
Hutton won’t make the Canucks simply because he reported to training camp in better shape. His conditioning is only Step 1, just a start. It merely gives him an opportunity under Green. But it’s a much better one than he had last spring.