Pop quiz time — and I promise this is going somewhere!
How many defensemen who are 5’8” or shorter have ever played at least 20 games in one NHL season in the past 30 years?
The answer is: one. Francis Bouillon, who hasn’t played in the NHL since 2013/14.
Funnily enough, it used to be a lot more common the further back in history you go. There have been 37 total defensemen to do it in the NHL’s history, and most of them did so during the original six era.
But when it comes to the current, ‘modern’ NHL game, smaller defensemen (5’8” or shorter) just do not play in the NHL, let alone become an impact player. You may draft one high, thinking he’ll be one of the few to do it. Or you may sign one as an undrafted free agent because he looked like he could do it after doing well in another pro league somewhere else in the world. And while they do great in the AHL, or get into a couple of games in the NHL, they’re never kept around for any real length of time.
So while we all like to imagine ourselves as more progressive minded hockey people, that makes for an interesting question: do you ever draft a 5’8” defenseman, no matter how good he looks as a prospect? Even if you think he looks great, the facts are the facts. Either they won’t ever be good enough to make the NHL, or they won’t ever be given the chance. But you also have to think that, eventually, someone will come around who breaks the mold. Exceptions always exist.
Which brings us to Lane Hutson. He is listed as a 5’8” defenseman who is — potentially — a top prospect in this year’s draft. Some scouts have said he’s one of the top 5 defensemen in the draft. Is he worth the hype, considering the apparent risk in spending a finite resource (draft pick) on a player who seemingly has an extremely low percentage change of ever playing a meaningful number of games in the NHL?
Let’s take a look.
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
League: US NTDP Juniors
Weight: 159 lbs
Birth date: August 2nd, 2004
Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:
- Bob McKenzie: 40th
- Will Scouch: 24th
- Scott Wheeler: 19th
- Elite Prospects: 47th
- Dobber Prospects: 53rd
- Smaht Scouting: 29th/
Hutson may be small, but he has been an elite defenseman wherever he has played to date. As a 15 year old, he had 38 points in 19 games. The next year, he was chosen to be part of the US National Development program. In 76 games as a 16 year old, he had 41 points. He also made the U18 World Championship roster for Team USA, as a smaller defenseman one year younger than usual — and he had 5 points in 5 games. This year, as a 17 year old, he had 95 points in 87 games, then another 8 points in 6 games for Team USA at the U18 Worlds. He led the USNTDP team in points for defensemen.
Clearly, being a smaller defenseman has not held him back, at least not so far. He is committed to joining Boston University in the NCAA for the 2023/24 season, meaning that next year he will likely still be playing in the USHL unless they ask him to join sooner — or he picks a new school to join next season. While you may normally be disappointed by that, hoping he could be challenged a season earlier and potentially turning pro earlier as well, in Hutson’s case it may make more sense.
That may make him a bit of a longer term project, but in his specific case that is not a bad thing. Lane Hutson himself seems to hope that time will only be friendly to his development.
THE GOOD: PURE OFFENSIVE SKILL
The reason why any team should want Lane Hutson is because of his offensive skill. His biggest weakness from an offensive perspective is his shot. It’s okay, though he can and does make it more dangerous by his willingness to get closer to the net for a shot. But I’m going to be honest... a big shot from the point is probably the last thing I want in a defenseman, even if it’s nice to have.
You can see it in his tracking data from Mitch Brown, who has a larger sample size than most others to work with:
Will Scouch’s tracking data supports this:
Over my entire sample, the data turned out extremely positive in many areas for Hutson. He was top 5 in offensive threat, driven by landing top 3 in dangerous pass attempts, top 5 in controlling offensive transitions with control, including when focusing strictly on passes and carries, 10th in offensive transition involvement, and second in my tracking in total controlled offensive transitions, completing his dangerous passes and overall dangerous offense by his team with him on the ice. The best part is that a number of these metrics completely took off after the first two games tracked into December, with pretty much an improvement across the board in these key areas that’s hard to ignore.
Now, that’s just the data. What’s fun is when you watch Hutson play, and you see how he achieves it — especially by the end of the season. He is strong across the board when it comes to his skating, his passing and vision, his puck handling and deception, and his effectiveness at reading a play as it develops. All of that together helps him be such an impact offensive defenseman.
Hutson’s skating and deception is what helps him be so effective despite his size. It’s the standard agility you want in a smaller player, where he can shift and cut so quickly that defenders can’t square him up in open ice. He can elude forecheckers in the defensive zone to get an easier pass to get it out with control. In the offensive zone, he can open up better passing lanes across the ice by dangling past defenders or forcing them to give him a bigger gap to avoid getting deked.
His vision and anticipation of a play helps Hutson see a potential passing option ahead of time. His skating and puck handling help him create those passing options if they aren’t open right away. And when he has a passing lane, he hits his passes a lot. In Will Scouch’s video, his data shows Hutson as both a very high volume passer (in general and into dangerous scoring areas) and has a high completion percentage for those passes. That’s why his manually tracked data is so high for shot assists and slot passes.
You can see him show off all those skills in this one clip below. Hutson is #23 in white, watch how involved with the play he is in the offensive zone. He’s all over the place, he has the puck a lot even though he passes or shoots it a few times.
Watching the USNTDP U18's for the first time the season. Want to get a better view on this year's draft class.— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) April 15, 2022
Hello, Lane Hutson (#23 NTDP) pic.twitter.com/CX5iypHiyg
Here’s another example. Hutson is again #23 in white. He scans for his options at the point, with a defense set in front. He pulls off a nice little give and go with his teammate along the boards. This causes the three defenders in front of him to get crossed up, as some assignments get missed. Hutson then sees a teammate wide open in front, and passes it through the wall of defenders to set up the teammate for a shot right in front of the goalie, which led to the goal.
He’s also great at hitting the long stretch passes, including banking it off the boards to hit a teammate in behind a layer of defense in the neutral zone. Here are two examples where he eludes forecheckers and bypasses the other team’s transition defense with a bank-stretch pass. Both lead to goals.
In short (heh), there may not be a better defenseman in this draft at creating scoring chances for his team than Lane Hutson. Kevin Korchinski and Hutson’s teammate Seamus Casey may be the only two who can compete with him in that regard. He can use these skills to quarter back a powerplay, and be the heavy lifter on his defensive pairing to move the puck up the ice to get into the offensive zone.
THE FLAWS: SIZE AND STRENGTH MATTER
But now we come back to the quiz question I asked in the introduction section, because there is just no getting around it. Hutson is small. Like, really small. It’s not just that he’s 5’8”, it’s that he’s also just 159 lbs. That is too small and too light to cut it, and while he can (and will) add more muscle and weight, there’s only so much he can do with the size he currently has to work with.
And you can see how it affects Hutson’s overall game right now, much less when projecting him as a potential NHL player. If you scroll back up to see his below average defensive metrics from Mitch Brown’s tracking data, you may think he’s a typical all offense, no defense skill guy. That he doesn’t try as hard defensively. But actually, when I watched him I did not get the impression that he just coasted defensively and wouldn’t try.
In fact, I often saw Hutson not just try, but try to do the right things defensively. He would try to close on a player to slow them down, use his stick to break up passes or poke it away from a puck carrier, or stick with his man to make life difficult.
I've really enjoyed watching Lane Hutson throughout the season and it's clips like this that truly sell me on him at the draft.— Josh Tessler 🇺🇦 (@JoshTessler_) April 2, 2022
Love the decision to cut in past the attacker, leans in, uses his reach to force the turnover, recovers the puck and attempts a quick breakout pass. pic.twitter.com/HUR1T25lv4
But the key word in all if that is “try”. He tries to do these things, but too often he is not big or strong enough to be defensively effective. He’ll bounce off players he’s trying to check, or he can’t reach the puck to poke it away. And if that’s already an issue for him in junior, imagine how much more of a problem it will be against bigger, older and better competition.
And it doesn’t just affect him defensively. It will also be an issue for him offensively. He is a very good skater for his level right now, but mostly because of his agility. He lacks a pull away gear and doesn’t have a great top speed to pull away from defenders. So even if he can shed a forechecker with a good deke, they can catch up to him if they’re a good skater. It also makes it harder for him to deal with defenders in the offensive zone, where he doesn’t have the size or reach to keep away from taller defenders with a longer reach than him, and if they do manage to get him along the boards, it’s too easy to shut down his movement and neutralize his skill.
This is why — for all Hutson’s skill and offensive production against top competition in the USHL, against NCAA teams, and in international tournaments — he is ranked just outside the first round.
There is simply no getting around it. At 5’8”, the odds will be stacked against him. He has all kinds of skill, maybe more skill than any other defenseman in this draft. But being 5’8” is just a huge hurdle to overcome if you’re going to play that position.
So, here’s the million dollar question when it comes to Hutson: what if he grows another inch? Or two? Or more? Each inch he grows will increase the chances that he can actually make the NHL, and become an impact defender. Each inch means he’ll have more room to physically grow, to add more muscle and strength and minimize these issues. If you knew he was going to get taller, and fill out some more to go with it, how does that change where you rank him in the draft right now?
Hutson himself is keenly aware of this question. When he was at the combine, he was came prepared to tell teams who he spoke with that he will grow taller — and he was bringing some science to back it up.
“I’ve seen an endocrinologist for my bone age and my bone age is delayed compared to my biological age,” said Hutson, a defenseman for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 team. “So, there’s still room to grow for myself. For teams concerned about it, I’m still not done growing.”
Hutson said his older brother, Quinn, grew a few inches between his 19th and 20th birthdays to reach 5-11, the same height as their father. Lane said there’s a chance he’ll reach 5-11 as well.
Brief aside: I’m not going to lie, I don’t know much about endocrinology or how legitimate it is as a science. Hutson was the very last player decided upon to profile, and the tie breaker was just so I could use “bone age” in a profile. How often am I going to be able to do that?
More seriously, I’m sure teams will know how legitimate that kind of claim is. People having late growth spurts happen not infrequently — Hutson pointed to his own brother as an example. I know that I am an example as well. I may have had my biggest growth spurt as I entered high school, but I still grew an inch or two around age 18/19.
That said, there’s no guarantees. Where Jason Robertson had a post-draft growth spurt to add a couple of inches in height (6’1” in his draft year to 6’3” now), his brother Nick Robertson is still the same 5’9” now as when he was drafted. So there is still some risk in taking Hutson, knowing he may not grow any taller. Or even if he does grow to be 5’9” or 5’10”, it’s still relatively rare to become an impact NHL defenseman.
And that is why Hutson may fall in the draft. Uncertainty is what kills a prospect on draft day when it comes to where they are taken, and size is one of the biggest points of uncertainty for NHL teams. He wouldn’t be the first highly skilled but small prospect to see his final ranking and where he actually gets drafted be lower than his skill and production would make you think.
But this is where a team like Toronto could have an opportunity. I don’t know if Hutson will actually fall into the third round — McKenzie already had Hutson ranked 40th in his final rankings, which just came out. But Logan Stankoven, who is also 5’8” but a forward, fell from 27th overall in Bob’s final rankings to 47th on draft day. Sean Behrens, a 5’10” defenseman with the same kind of profile as Hutson, was ranked 50th in Bob’s final rankings and was taken 61st. Brent Johnson was a 5’10” defenseman who was ranked 68th and went 80th. Ryan Ufko was ranked 90th and went 115th. Back in 2020, the Leafs drafted 5’10” Topi Niemela 64th overall after Bob ranked him 38th.
Smaller defenseman fall, the question will be how much he falls and he winds up in the final rankings. I think there’s a good chance he will not be available when Toronto picks in the third round. But given just how small he is — he’s two inches shorter than any of the examples I mentioned above — I would give it a decent chance of happening. The Leafs could also wind up with a second round pick on draft day, where Hutson is more likely to be available.
And if they buy into the Bone Age Theory(TM), and think he has a good chance of winding up around 5’11” or at least 5’10”, he has the skills to make that a worthy swing. He’ll probably not fall almost 40 spots on draft day, but if the Leafs trade down or get a later second round pick, he’d make an interesting swing.
Would you take Lane Hutson with Toronto’s third round pick?
|Hell yes, I’d even take him with a second round pick!||35|
|Maybe, it depends on who else is available.||47|
|No way, not a 5’8” defenseman who is selling us some snake oil called Bone Age||75|