Botchford: Canucks’ penalty kill is nothing without ‘scapegoat’ Hutton

 

 
 
 
 
Vancouver Canucks' defenceman Ben Hutton, right, shown keeping sniper Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings on the outside, has been a healthy scratch for the past two games.
 

Vancouver Canucks' defenceman Ben Hutton, right, shown keeping sniper Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings on the outside, has been a healthy scratch for the past two games.

Photograph by: NICOLAS ASFOURI, The Province

Travis Green fixed his power play.

Now, the head coach of the Vancouver Canucks just needs to fix everything else.

Well, not quite everything.

Not Brock Boeser. Holy Christmas, don’t change a thing about Boeser. He’s even scoring goals playing on a line with Sam Gagner. When wingers start doing that regularly in the NHL, you wonder: what can’t he do?

Boeser has been as advertised. Truthfully, much more. He’s the first real, tangible reason there’s hope about what the Canucks can be three years from now.

There hasn’t been much hope generated elsewhere. Not lately. The goalies can’t make saves — at least, not enough of them. The Sedins have been getting points, even controlling play but in some big moments have been pale shadows of themselves defensively. The penalty killing has been in shambles without Brandon Sutter and Bo Horvat.

Oh, and then there’s Ben Hutton.

Generally, teams don’t bench their 24-year-old, up-and-coming top-four defencemen. Especially when they’re rebuilding and they’re playing fringe NHL players instead.

But Hutton’s playing time was a casualty this week on a team that has now lost seven of eight without Horvat.

For the first time in his career, Hutton has been a healthy scratch. Twice. Green has since explained he twisted over the decision. And we’re sure he did.

Hutton has his flaws, but he is a good player. In fact, a statistical case has been made he’s the Canucks’ best penalty-killing defenceman this year and it’s a convincing one.

Opponents are averaging just 43 shots-on-net-per-hour when Hutton is killing penalties. Among all the penalty-killing regulars, only Loui Eriksson has been more impactful in suppressing shots.

For comparison, opponents are racking up 61 shots-per-hour when Michel Del Zotto is on the PK and 63 when it’s Erik Gudbranson. That’s not good.

It becomes more problematic when Hutton is sitting for two straight and in those games the Canucks surrender five power-play goals against in eight opportunities.

They lost both and they were close. A good penalty-killing effort could have made a difference. Would the Canucks have defeated either San Jose or Montreal with Hutton in the lineup? The mind wanders in possibilities.

Hutton has been something of a scapegoat on a defence where no one has been decent for a month.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Alex Biega has been good. But Biega is 29 years old, and has played 113 games since he was drafted in 2006. There’s not much chance Biega is making any sort of impact in three years when the Canucks hope they have a relevant team that can really contend.

In other words, Biega can help in the short-term, but in the big picture he’s not moving the needle.

Hutton, however, is a different story. His development is of critical importance to this club. Mostly, because the Canucks are not blessed with a big group of young, promising defencemen.

There are the three guys in the NHL, Hutton, Troy Stecher and Derrick Pouliot, and then there’s Olli Juolevi. After that, the under-25 age group is barren.

Over the course of the season, Green should be looking to get Hutton, Stecher and Pouliot larger roles, not marginalizing them.

This could be exactly what he plans to do. A healthy scratch or two in December will look meaningless if Hutton responds positively, grabs his rightful spot in the lineup and plays well the rest of the season.

He isn’t the first good player to be scratched and won’t be the last. A healthy scratch under former head coach Willie Desjardins is often cited as one of the turning points in Sven Baertschi’s growth.

The same could happen for Hutton. Adversity is important. It forces self-reflection and can accelerate improvement. Generally, Hutton has had it pretty easy since he turned pro three years ago.

He made the Canucks out of training camp. He glided to a surprising rookie season in which he had 25 points in 75 games.

He quickly became trusted by the coach and in two seasons under Desjardins never had to worry about his place in the lineup.

He has to worry now. It’s possible his rookie production created some unreasonable expectations for Hutton. If he had 25 points in year one, some predicted he’d be a 35- t0 40-point player by year five.

But that’s not how development works. The 25 points could quite possibly be 90 per cent of what peak Hutton accomplishes. It’s rarely a linear experience for players. There are high points, and there are dips. How players respond in the dips generally dictates how successful they will be over the course of years.

It’s not clear when Hutton will get his chance to respond to this dip. It should be Saturday.

At least, if Green is motivated to fix his penalty-killing unit.

jbotchford@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/botchford

NEXT GAME

Saturday

St. Louis Blues vs. Vancouver Canucks

7 p.m., Rogers Arena, CBC, SNET 650 AM

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Vancouver Canucks' defenceman Ben Hutton, right, shown keeping sniper Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings on the outside, has been a healthy scratch for the past two games.
 

Vancouver Canucks' defenceman Ben Hutton, right, shown keeping sniper Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings on the outside, has been a healthy scratch for the past two games.

Photograph by: NICOLAS ASFOURI, The Province

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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