It’s nearly impossible to watch an NHL game these days without at least one or a handful of impact players being a former member of the United States National Team Development Program.
The USNTDP was founded more than a quarter century ago and it has helped refine the on- and off-ice skills of many of hockey’s top stars, including the reigning Hart and back-to-back “Rocket” Richard winner.
There have been more than 600 players participate in the program over the years with more than half drafted by an NHL team – more than half of those draftees were selected within the first three rounds, which speaks to the consistent high level of talent the program produces.
If Logan Cooley and/or Cutter Gauthier end up a top-five selection, as most pundits are predicting, it’ll be the fifth consecutive year a USNTDP alumnus will have been drafted within the first five picks.
There were 18 prospects with ties to the program drafted one year ago, four in the opening round, and this year’s draft class is even richer in USA Hockey talent.
Ten players from the 2021-22 U.S. national U18 roster finished their season in the top 50 of Central Scouting’s final pre-draft rankings.
“We had so many special players in that group, it made us all better,” projected top-20 pick and USNTDP member Isaac Howard told Sportsnet at the 2022 Scouting Combine.
Howard said he thinks as many as nine of his teammates could end up getting selected in the opening round alone. One of those teammates, Lane Hutson, is perhaps the most unique of all the draft-eligible Americans.
Hutson is a defenceman whose lack of size combined with an abundance of skill sees him as one of the more intriguing prospects ahead of the 2022 NHL Draft.
Hutson is listed at 5-foot-8 and 158 pounds, making him the shortest and lightest blueliner projected to come off the board within the first few rounds this year.
The No. 25-ranked North American skater could go late in the opening round if a team is high on the diminutive defenceman’s upside, otherwise he’s likely to be taken relatively early on Day 2 of the draft.
Hutson has gained approximately 10 pounds since joining the program in 2021 thanks to its exhaustive strength and conditioning regimen headed by USNTDP director of sports science Brian Galivan. Still, his lack of size remains the most glaring, surface-level issue leading to doubts over his potential despite the fact he excels in so many other areas.
Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino believes “from an on-ice perspective, he’s a sure-fire first-rounder” and “if Hutson was 5-foot-10 today, he would be projected to go inside the top 15 picks of this draft.”
Hutson interviewed with half the league, 16 teams, at the combine in June and to prove he’s no Lilliputian he brought with him an interesting document to theoretically ease concerns teams may have about his size.
A report from Hutson’s endocrinologist indicated his bone age is delayed relative to his biological age, which means his frame still has more than a full year of additional bone growth to go.
“It's just something I thought I'd share with them,” Hutson said. “And they're like, 'Oh, that's good, we're glad you came prepared.' I think every question in the room is usually about my size, it's the obvious thing. But I'm not too worried either way.”
One quantifiable piece of evidence to suggest Hutson has a bright future ahead of him regardless of his measurables is the E.J. McGuire Award of Excellence he received in June. It is awarded by the NHL annually to the prospect who “best exemplifies commitment to excellence through strength of character, competitiveness, and athleticism,” a handful of traits that just so happen to feature prominently in individuals at the NHL level.
Past winners of the award include Travis Konecny of the Flyers, 2017 first-overall pick Nico Hischier of the Devils, and William Eklund, the seventh-overall pick from a year ago.
“Lane is a kid that won't be denied, he just works constantly," USNTDP associate coach Nick Fohr said after Hutson received the award. “He's got things to overcome in most people's eyes, and that's his size, and there's one way to do it: outwork everyone else. And that's something he does. It's special.
“On the ice, he makes his teammates better. He finds ways to get them pucks when most players typically can't. In the locker room, he's a little quieter. But the guys listen to him because he's gained so much respect for his work ethic on the ice.”
Hutson has played defence his whole life because at an early age his dad noticed how well he saw the ice and ever since then he has consistently proved naysayers wrong whilst manning the blue line and quarterbacking power plays.
Hutson is from North Bank, Ill., where he played his youth hockey before spending his U16 season with the AAA North Jersey Avalanche in New Jersey prior to joining the USNTDP for the 2020-21 season.
He grew up a Blackhawks fan and looked up to Patrick Kane whom he modelled some of his game after. A slightly hyperbolic, tunnel-vision analysis of Hutson focussed on peak potential might rhetorically ask: what if Patrick Kane decided to be a defenceman instead of a winger?
Kane, of course, is a franchise forward and future first ballot Hall of Famer taken with the No. 1 pick in 2007 but you can absolutely see some similarities to Kane when watching tape on Hutson.
Here’s a short clip of Hutson dominating the University of Alaska-Fairbanks earlier this year. Some of his moves and puckhandling skills are certainly Kane-like. Also, admire the edge work.
Hutson described himself as “a two-way, 200-foot defenceman who can contribute offensively and knows the defensive responsibilities,” earlier this year when speaking to The Pipeline Show before adding, “I think I’m a mobile guy who can find space and find the open guy and create plays up the ice.”
He noticeably improved between his U17 and U18 campaigns and his stock has steadily risen in the past year after leading the U18 national team with 53 assists in 60 games.
“I feel when I came to the program I didn’t have as much confidence as I do now, and obviously strength, size and all that got better after my first year,” Hutson added. “This year I feel like I can play both ends at a pretty high level and I can contribute offensively a lot more this year than last year cause of how much my confidence has grown.”
“Any description of Lane has always referenced his size and one of the more appealing traits of Lane is that he knows how to use his size to his advantage to dispel any perceived limitations,” NHL Central Scouting’s director Dan Marr said. “It's this trait and how he approaches his training and the game, in which he competes with an unreserved passion, which has earned him the respect of teammates and opponents alike.”
Hutson has taken full advantage of a comprehensive off-ice program and has packed on muscle in a healthy way that hasn’t negatively impacted his speed.
“All the resources you have there, the strength and conditioning coaches, the head coaches, the assistants, they’re all there to help you and support you,” Cooley said of the USNTDP. “We’re on the ice for two hours, we’re in the weight room for two hours and I think that’s why (we as a group are) so special coming out of there.”
Projected first-round forward Rutger McGroarty added: “The competitive nature of that program, you’re with 23 of the best players in America at your age group and we had a competitive bunch the last two years, and it was a lot of fun working with those guys and competing with them in small area games or in the weight room or wherever it is.”
Ryan Chesley was Hutson’s primary defence partner this past season. Chesley is the only blueliner from the USNTDP ranked ahead of Hutson but at 6-foot and 201 pounds, size is not an issue for him. Chesley said at the combine he thinks he’s the best defender in the draft while admitting his puck skills and decision-making with the puck on his stick are the areas he most needs to improve. In a way, that’s the inverse of Hutson who is so often lauded for his stick skills and vision and who aims to improve on the defensive side.
Another honour bestowed upon Hutson this past season was when he was named best defender at the 2022 Under-18 World Championship. He tallied 13 assists in 11 total games across the past two world U18 tournaments and could potentially play a key role for Team USA at the 2023 world juniors after being one of 60 players invited to USA Hockey's junior evaluation camp that takes place later this summer at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich.
Pure mass aside, his relative lack of wingspan can be a problem when forwards go wide with speed. Also, even with his improved strength, Hutson won’t be outmuscling any 220-pound power forwards in front of the net anytime soon.
Hutson will continue honing his craft while filling out his still-growing frame at Boston University in the fall where he will debut alongside his older brother, Quinn Hutson, who spent the past two seasons with the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks.
Hutson, whose father Rob stands at 5-foot-11, mentioned to reporters at the combine that Quinn sprouted a couple inches after he turned 19 and now stands 5-foot-11. Quinn is a forward mind you, so size concerns are naturally weighted (no pun intended) to matter more when analyzing defenders.
The Minnesota Wild’s Jared Spurgeon is currently the NHL’s smallest defenceman standing 5-foot-9 and 166 pounds, while 5-foot-10 Samuel Girard of the champion Colorado Avalanche tips the scales at just 170 pounds and is the league’s second-lightest defenceman. Both have developed into highly effective everyday players, yet neither showed the type of offensive upside Hutson has put on display during his pre-draft years.
In theory, Hutson could also follow a similar path to a pair of fellow undersized blueliners and USNTDP grads.
Adam Fox was taken 66th overall in 2016 when he stood 5-foot-10, 183 pounds. The 2021 Norris Trophy winner was listed at 5-foot-11 this past year but still only hovers around 180 pounds, same as when he was drafted.
Quinn Hughes was taken seventh overall by Vancouver in 2018. Hughes was 5-foot-10, 170 pounds at the draft and was listed at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds this past season as a 22-year-old.
For what it’s worth, Hutson put up better USNTDP numbers than both Fox and Hughes. The question now becomes which team will end up taking a chance on Hutson, and several years from now will the league look back and view it as a steal?