Jason Botchford Sept 10, 2016
It doesn’t take much to remind Ben Hutton of where he was a year ago.
The vivid memories of his rapid ascent from longterm prospect to core Canuck, which had the feel of a voyage through the space-time continuum, were triggered again this week.
Taking part in informal skates with organizational teammates, Hutton couldn’t help but think back upon seeing Troy Stecher cut his way up and down the ice. He is the 22-year-old right-shot defenceman the Canucks signed as a college free agent in April.
He’s a good skater. He’s a puck mover. He’s coming off a successful year in playing in the NCAA. And, although he’s not in the team’s immediate plans, he has a chance this month to make the implausible happen, and earn his way onto the Canucks opening night roster.
Hutton, more than anyone, knows this to be true. It was only last September the former fifth-round draft pick shocked the Canucks world by doing the same.
“I told him ‘Dude, just go and play your game. Don’t think too much. Anything can happen,’” Hutton said. “And then I said, ‘Don’t take my job, though.’”
He then grinned with that warm, toothy smile which made him one of the most popular hockey players in Vancouver a hot minute after his arrival.
“I was joking with him,” he said laughing, before ending an interview like he had just dropped a mic.
BACK TO SCHOOL
It was March 2015 when the Canucks signed Hutton to his first pro deal. It almost didn’t happen.
After surveying rosters in both Vancouver and Utica, Hutton was leaning toward returning to the University of Maine for a fourth year.
He just couldn’t see a clear path to what he wanted most, which was significant playing time.
The Canucks weren’t applying intense pressure, even if a return to school had potentially devastating ramifications. For one, Hutton would have an opportunity to become a free agent at the end of another year of college.
There weren’t any flights or meetings in Hutton’s hometown. But the Canucks did make phone calls, and they let Hutton’s camp know there were high on him and saw a future top-four defenceman.
“I thought both Utica and Vancouver were deep on defence. I didn’t want to be snubbed, and left at the bottom of a depth chart where it would be a long grind to play a big role,” Hutton said.
But Hutton then spent his reading week at home that school year, meeting with his advisors and parents. He was eventually swung in the other direction.
“I was nervous, but after those discussions I said ‘All right, let’s do it. Let’s sign,’” Hutton said. “Then, I came to (training) camp, and it all happened.”
By “all happened” Hutton means the most unlikeliest of scenarios unfolded. He went from a defenceman who was not needed in Utica to a critical component of the Canucks’ top four on their blueline.
No one saw it coming.
In March, Hutton arrived in Utica to play for Comets head coach Travis Green. He got in four regular-season games, but it wasn’t enough to convince Green the 22-year-old could help his team on what would be a long playoff run.
“They had a strong team,” Hutton said. “I felt I played well, but Green told me the situation.
“They had a lot of veteran defenceman. They were in first place. He said, ‘I don’t want to disrupt anything on the back end and get people upset.
“I said ‘Hey, no worries. But I’m here if you need me and if there’s an injury, I’m ready for you to put me in.’”
Hutton stayed with the team for one playoff series.
“He told me to go to Vancouver and go train,” Hutton said.
It probably helped. Hutton had a great offseason of training. But, to be real, the player who stormed his way onto the Canucks’ roster later that year was the same one who departed Utica having played just four times.
YOUNG STARS EMERGENCE
As Hutton readied himself to play in the Canucks’ annual Young Stars tournament in Penticton last September, he was only thinking about making some type of impression on the team’s front office.
“I was just happy to be meeting the Sedins,” Hutton said. “I wasn’t thinking about making the team. I was just thinking about doing the best I could, to leave them something to remember.”
His thinking, however, changed the same way it does for many of us, after a call from his mom.
“I was at the prospects tournament and my mom told me (Canucks President Trevor) Linden in an interview said I looked like the best defenceman,” Hutton said. “I said, ‘Mom, are you sure he said that?’
“But that was a good confidence booster.”
So was the preseason.
Hutton had one strong game playing with Luca Sbisa and in the the Canucks’ fourth exhibition game, he had three assists, none more memorable than a 60-foot pass he made to Jared McCann.
“I clappered it to him backdoor,” Hutton said, remembering the play this week.
“I was sure he was going to shoot. He was sitting backdoor all alone.
“I was thinking ‘Just put it in, just put it in.’ But he sent the puck to the other side. I though, ‘Did you just miss the net there?’
“But then Bo (Horvat) tapped it. Wow, that was a sick play.”
LEARNING ON THE FLY
The Canucks will need plenty of those “sick” plays generated by Hutton this season.
Their defence collectively scored just 17 goals last year and improving that will be critical in staying closer to the playoff race this season than the Western Conference basement.
There is much hope that Hutton, who had one goal and 24 assists last year, can lead the way on that front.
He’s expected to be paired with Erik Gudbranson, who has the protect-his-own-end focus and was at his best in Florida when playing alongside offensive star blueliner Brian Campbell.
Hutton had an opportunity late last year, after Alex Edler’s injury, to take on a bigger offensive role, finding his way onto the Canucks’ first power-play unit with the Sedins. It wasn’t a success on the ice, but what Hutton learned could pay off this year.
“They taught me a ton about the power play,” Hutton said. “They would chat with me all time.
“They gave me a lot of tricks of the trades and I learned a lot about tendencies to help me out. Hopefully, this year it will really help me.”
FINDING HIS PLACE IN THE NHL
A lot had to go right for Hutton to surprise everyone last season.
Nothing was more important, however, than his switch from forward to defence when he was 16 years old.
Hutton didn’t even play defence until he was 14 years old. He was both good and comfortable. But when got to his Junior A team, they were loaded on the blueline.
“So I played my first year of junior as a foward,” Hutton said. “But in my second year, we had no D. We couldn’t break the puck out. We couldn’t do anything.
“I said ‘coach, I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but maybe you want to try me on D one game?’
“I went on D one game and in my first shift, I ended up having two assists.
“Coach was like ‘Uh, we’re going to keep you on D and see how it goes.’”
Turns out, all the way to the NHL in six years.
THE NEXT LONG SHOTS
Ben Hutton figuratively came out of nowhere a year ago to make the Canucks roster. A long shot then, he’s an inspiration now. Here are some players who have the chance to do something similar this month.
Last season: Stecher put up 29 points in 43 games for the University of North Dakota.
Why he has a chance: He has a high offensive ceiling and is a right-shot blueliner, both things which could really help the Canucks.
Last season: Juolevi put up 42 points in 57 games with the London Knights.
Why he has a chance: He’s a high pick, fifth overall, who is 6-foot-3 and coming off an impressive year in which he was great at the World Junior Championship.
Last season: Gaunce tallied 38 points in 46 games with the Utica Comets.
Why he has a chance: He can play centre or wing and has higher upside than some of the players people assume will be on the team when the season starts.