On Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks defenceman Ben Hutton played a game-high 31:18 in a 4-3 overtime loss, which was nearly six minutes more than any other player on either team. It was also the eighth-highest ice-time of any skater so far this season.
On Tuesday, Hutton logged 28:35 against the Washington Capitals, once again the most of any skater. The night before, he played 25:02, second only to Philadelphia Flyers workhorse Ivan Provorov. Ever since Canucks veteran Alex Edler went down with a concussion following a scary fall on Feb. 4 against the Flyers, Hutton has been called upon in every situation by head coach Travis Green, to an almost alarming rate. But he hasn’t been alone.
Alongside Hutton nearly every step of the way at even-strength has been the very reliable Troy Stecher. The 24-year-old Richmond, B.C. native may only have one goal so far this season, but he’s blossomed into an effective two-way defender who can skate the puck out of trouble and provide offence at five-on-five, as his 15 even-strength assists prove.
When Edler went down, it wasn’t only Hutton who was called upon to be a minute-muncher, but Stecher as well. On a per-game basis since Feb. 4, Hutton and Stecher have logged the fourth and 14th-most time-on-ice (TOI) in the National Hockey League at even-strength, at 22:16 and 20:52, respectively.
While it’s only a three-game sample, the added responsibility of playing heavy minutes against top competition is not easy, yet both have thrived. That’s nothing but good news for a Canucks organization that desperately needs someone to take the reigns on the back end.
Hutton & Stecher Dominating Possession
In the three games they’ve been the Canucks’ ‘top pair’ — since the Edler injury — the Hutton and Stecher duo have only been on the ice for one goal for and one goal against at five-on-five. Based on the chances they’ve created, those numbers should be much stronger. Here’s a look at the Canucks’ possession numbers while Hutton and Stecher have been together at five-on-five during the last three games.
|Time On-Ice||Corsi For %||Fenwick For %||Shots For %||Scoring Chances For %||On-Ice SH%|
That’s a heck of a lot of success considering how much ice-time they logged. If it weren’t for that awful 2.86 on-ice shooting percentage (SH%), they surely would have more than just a single five-on-five goal to show for it. Now, to be fair, it can be misleading to look at such a small sample size and declare, ‘this is working.’ Having watched the games, however, it was clear the two rearguards were not the reason the team only picked up a single point in the three contests.
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Thankfully, Hutton and Stecher have been paired together before this past week, and once again, their results were positive. Maybe not as positive as the ones above, but positive nonetheless. Here are their possession numbers since Jan. 12 (nine games), which was when the Hutton and Erik Gudbranson experiment finally ended. I’ve compared those to the possession numbers of the Canucks’ actual top pairing of Edler and Chris Tanev.
|Shot Share since. Jan 12||Time On-Ice||Corsi For %||Fenwick For %||Shots For %||Scoring Chances For %||Goals For %||On-Ice SH%|
|Hutton & Stecher||146:39||50.52||51.46||51.41||53.91||63.64||9.59|
|Edler & Tanev||97:25||46.03||48.51||49.43||47.14||33.33||2.33|
|All Other Defencemen||101:54||44.62||44.6||45.05||35.87||57.14||16|
While it’s clear Edler and Tanev were victims of the horrid 2.33 on-ice SH% this time, it’s also clear that Hutton and Stecher have outperformed the Canucks’ top pairing in every single possession metric since Jan. 12. With Edler on the wrong side of 30 and Tanev approaching it, perhaps coach Green should keep giving Hutton (25) and Stecher (24) plenty of ice-time, even when Edler returns. They deserve it.
Stetcher’s Five-on-Five Numbers Impressive
As mentioned, Stecher has only scored one goal this season, but he has 15 assists at five-on-five. Given that he receives next-to-no power play time (17:58 all season), it’s quite an impressive feat.
Stecher’s 1.1 assists per-60 minutes at five-on-five are tied for the 10th-best in the NHL among defencemen who have played at least 600 five-on-five minutes. We already know he has some very strong possession numbers, certainly with Hutton, but what I find more interesting are the Canucks’ impressive shot suppression numbers with him on the ice. Who knew Stecher was good at actually defending?
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the first-pairing defenceman (Edler) were on the right in the chart above and the second-pairing defenseman (Stecher) were on the left. That isn’t the case.
Yes, Edler plays against much tougher competition, so his 82nd percentile relative Corsi Against per-60 is very strong and his 97th percentile relative expected Goals Against per-60 is even more impressive. But Stecher’s defensive numbers — 85th percentile for relative Corsi Against per-60 and 87th percentile for relative expected Goals Against per-60 — are not what one would expect from a 5-foot-10, 186-pound defenceman, even when considering he typically doesn’t face top competition.
My guess as to why that is? He’s such a good skater and puck mover that he doesn’t actually spend all that much time in the defensive zone, so with him on the ice, the other team isn’t getting many chances. It’s not like he’s tough in the corners and can break up the cycle or clear the front of the net the way Edler does, but he sure can move the puck out of the zone quickly and efficiently. That’s a coveted skill, especially for the Canucks.
TSN’s Ray Ferraro Touches on Hutton’s Turnaround
During TSN 1040’s Donnie & The Moj on Feb. 6, TSN analyst Ray Ferraro spoke about how Hutton’s game as of late has impressed him. Let’s remember that last season, Hutton was in Green’s doghouse and was often a healthy scratch.
.@rayferrarotsn on Hutton: His career was at a point where it easily could have gone south. I've been really, really impressed with how he's embraced getting booted in the rear end…but he seems to be the same guy, too. I think he would be a terrific teammate. #Canucks
— TSN Radio Vancouver (@TSN1040) February 6, 2019
“Some players, they come to this watershed moment where they understand…’What I think I’m doing isn’t enough,” Ferraro said. “So you can do one of two things. You can buck back against them and say, ‘To hell with you guys’…or you can do clearly what Hutton has done and that’s ‘Okay, I’ve got to figure this out’.
“It’s not as easy as it sounds so lots of players, they just don’t do it. They don’t connect to it and they don’t commit fully to it. For people that have never played and to me, who did play, it’s unfathomable that that would be the case. But it is the case. There are lots of players [where] the last missing piece — they’ve got skill, they’ve got size, they can skate, they can do this, that and the other thing — the missing piece is a commitment to the game.”
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I find it fascinating to hear this kind of perspective from a former NHLer in Ferraro. This is what Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock talks about when he speaks of “being a good pro.” It’s not easy and some players can’t figure it out. Credit goes to Green, and especially to Hutton, who went through the grind and came out a better player. Now, you have a legitimate top-four defenceman when that was very much in doubt less than a year ago.
What to Do When Edler Returns
Edler was expected to miss at least a week as of Feb. 5 when the team reported he had a concussion but no facial fracture. That’s quite a positive diagnosis, given how severe things looked at the time. It means he could be back sooner rather than later.
While Hutton and Stetcher have thrived in his absence, the rest of the defence has struggled. Specifically, Tanev has not looked good. He doesn’t really have anyone to play with now and has been on the ice for six goals against at five-on-five the last three games and just one goal for, while sporting a 42.63 Corsi for percentage.
When Edler returns, it will be wonderful news not just for Tanev, but also for the team’s power play, which needs to figure things out because it’s a measly 13.2 per cent since Jan. 1. The Canucks penalty kill also desperately misses Edler.
But I would certainly offer one piece of advice to Green for when the big Swede is healthy again: reduce his minutes (and Tanev’s) ever so slightly so the Hutton and Stecher pairing can play more. They’ve proven they’re extremely effective together and Edler will soon be 33, with quite the injury history.
Most importantly, Hutton and Stecher are a vital part of the Canucks’ future, so you need to see what they can handle over a longer stretch of time with heavier minutes. Green needs to determine if they truly are the second pairing that the team can count on down the road.
Nathan Kanter covers the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers. He received his master’s in journalism from Western University in May of 2015 before serving as the first ever Digital Managing Editor at Western’s university newspaper, The Western Gazette, in 2015-16. From 2016-18, he served as the radio play-by-play voice of the Battlefords North Stars in the SJHL. His work has been published in The Hockey News, at Sportsnet.ca and at Dobber Prospects.