Ben Hutton knows who needs the puck on the power play

The young defenceman has quickly clicked with Elias Pettersson on the first unit.

Pass it to Bulis

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When Canucks head coach Travis Green harshly criticized Ben Hutton last season, some took it as a sign that Green didn’t like the young defenceman and that he might not be a Canuck for much longer. That’s not how Hutton took it.

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“If he didn’t say anything or just didn’t care, I feel like that would almost be worse,” said Hutton at the end of the season. “If someone’s hard on you, it’s because they see you have more to give.”

So far this season, Hutton has been giving more and more, proving that Green’s tough-love approach and Hutton’s hard work in the summer has paid off. Since Alex Edler left the lineup with a knee injury, Hutton leads the Canucks in ice time, averaging 22:35 per game. He’s eating up minutes in all situations and playing some of the best hockey of his career.

The one place where he wasn’t directly replacing Edler was on the power play, where he instead was on the second unit, with Derrick Pouliot manning the point on the top unit. Over the past week, that’s changed.

With Pouliot, the first unit was struggling. The Canucks have scored just two goals at 5-on-4 with Pouliot on the ice and have given up a shorthanded goal against. Something had to change.

Over the past few games, the addition of Hutton to the top unit has seemed to provide a spark. Most noticeably, he’s been able to put the puck in the wheelhouse of Canucks super-rookie Elias Pettersson.

The young Swede has a rocket of a one-timer that makes him a dangerous scoring threat on the power play. While Pouliot has been unable to set up Pettersson for any one-timer goals, Hutton has assisted on two of them, then added another power play assist on a non-Pettersson goal on Wednesday. That’s a small sample size, but the early returns have been encouraging.

It’s not just that Pettersson scored a couple goals, but his shot rate is twice as high with Hutton than it has been with Pouliot. With Hutton at the point, Pettersson has been able to generate more shots on goal, which should naturally lead to more goals.

As much as it may seem simple to put the puck on a tee for Pettersson, the fact that the Canucks haven’t been able to consistently do so should tell you that it’s more complicated than you might think.

“Everyone likes to hit a one-timer different, whether it’s off their back foot, off their front foot, like to have one step in on it, or whatever,” said Hutton during the preseason. While Pettersson told Hutton to put the puck anywhere, it seems like he’s found the right spot.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Hutton has quickly settled in on the first power play unit. If we extend our gaze back a couple season, Hutton actually leads all Canucks defencemen in the rate of goals the Canucks have scored with them on the power play. In other words, the power play has scored more with Hutton on the ice than with any other Canucks defenceman over the past three years.

That goes for Hutton himself: since he first joined the Canucks as a rookie, Hutton leads all defencemen in power play points. Considering Hutton has spent the bulk of that time on the second power play unit, that’s impressive.

As an added bonus, the Canucks have given up a lower rate of shorthanded goals with Hutton on the ice than with any other defenceman over the past few seasons. While that’s not often the prime concern on the power play, it’s worth keeping in mind: the point of hockey, after all, isn’t just to score goals, but to outscore the opponent.

While the Canucks best bet will be to get Edler back on the first power play unit as soon as he returns from injury, there’s an argument to be made that Hutton deserves a longer look in that role. At the very least, he should stay on the second unit.

Big Numbers

12 - A fun stat from Sportsnet: Elias Pettersson is the first place since Alex Ovechkin to score 12 goals in his first 17 NHL games.

26.7 - Among played with at least 30 shots, Elias Pettersson has the highest shooting percentage in the NHL right now at 26.7%. That’s generally a sign that regression is on the way and he’s unlikely to sustain that high a number, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down so far.

Stick-taps and Glove-drops

I’m dropping the gloves with the awful Pacific Division. Heading into Wednesday’s game in Anaheim, the Canucks were under .500 and had a minus-14 goal differential, but were somehow still in third place in the Pacific. The only two teams in the entire division with a positive goal differential are the San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames. The entire division shouldn’t be this bad.

I’m dropping the gloves with Peter Chiarelli, who has surrounded the blazingly fast Connor McDavid with one of the slowest rosters in the league, then followed that up by hiring Ken Hitchcock, a notoriously defensive-minded head coach. McDavid is arguably the best player on the planet and the Oilers squandering his early years.

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