Welcome back to “Let’s Have a Conversation”, a series that focuses on divisive draft eligible prospects by diving into the details surrounding their draft campaign. The subjective nature of scouting means that there are few players every year that everyone can agree on for various reasons -- failure to meet pre-season expectations, unique play-styles, interesting case studies and a myriad of other scenarios. Whatever the case may be, there will always be players that the scouting community cannot form consensus on, and the conversations surrounding those players fascinate me. The driving force that created this series is an innate desire to understand these players to the best of my ability. Properly understanding these cases means understanding that there is no one view or philosophy that truly encaptures the nuanced analysis required for a fair analysis.
My intentions are not to create flawless scouting reports, but instead create an expansive guide that covers all of the major discussion points surrounding the player in question. Regardless of accuracy, objective analysis is never enough to fully grasp who these players are and why they do what they do on the ice. Subjectivity reigns supreme in order to truly understand. This means these pieces are, by default, subject to a level of bias from myself. This bias may conflict with the analysis of other scouts and that is okay. The purpose is not to belittle or downplay the work of others, only to bring up conversational topics that challenge the brain of a scout. Disagreements are great as they only dive further into these conversations, hopefully resulting in viewing these players in a more complete way.
I believe there are four core aspects that allow us to cover these discussions in a fair manner, such as:
- An overview of the player’s pre-draft expectations, their draft campaign and the common talking points surrounding each player and their respective narrative(s).
- A detailed look into the player’s game that will look into the objective side of analysis -- strengths, weaknesses, brief video breakdowns and, if relevant, event data.
- Jumping two feet first into the subjective “grey area” of player analysis to cover the driving forces both for and against the prospect in question.
- An in-depth look into the major talking point(s) I view as necessary in order to understand why the player does what they do.
The next player in question is my personal favourite player in the entire draft class, USNTDP defender Lane Hutson.
The spectrum that encompasses Lane Hutson’s expectations coming into the season is as wide as one can reasonably find in a prospect. The reason is obvious, he’s a 5’8 defender fighting for high draft status in a league where defenders of his height are a rarity. It’s worth stating right away that his height is by far the largest factor that made him such a divisive prospect and that division has only grown larger as the year went by.
Nevertheless, as a D-1 Lane Hutson had every scout on the edge of their seat. His scoring totals (19 points in 39 games with the U17 team, 8 points in 10 games with the U18 team) were notably impressive but still managed to not fully capture the sheer amount of offense that was being generated on a near nightly basis. Hutson’s facilitation and offensive activation stood above his peers with only Seamus Casey earning mention alongside Lane when entering this season. There were still bouts of hesitancy from scouts, due to the middling size and curiosity if this would be exposed as a larger problem than expected at a best-on-best tournament like the U18's.
That hesitancy stopped once the U18’s last year concluded. Once more, Hutson showed off what he could do and made as definitive a statement as one possibly could have. He generated offense with nearly every puck touch, finding plays that really drove results for Team USA no matter if they were big or small. He also showed that, while his defensive abilities needed refinement, he had enough of a foundation in his own zone that belief in his ability to eventually defend at an NHL level was now more than blind optimism.
There were very few defenders that I was as excited to jump into when the season started this year. Admittedly, he earned a top ten spot on my preliminary list due to offensive manipulation that just wasn't found in the vast majority of blue liners in this draft, and I was beyond excited to see what he would do. Unfortunately, Hutson had a bit of a slow start and was showing everyone what he can be if things don't work out -- inefficient, problematic and arguably a net-negative asset. While I'm sure this start was a humbling experience for Hutson, it also humbled myself and allowed me to be more aware of my biases when watching him going forward. After all, it's easy to ignore the bad of a good Junior player with projection issues if you never see what this bad side can look like. This may sound like a bit of an exaggeration as Hutson was still a good player for stretches during the early stages of the year, but for the standards that the NHL demands he was far from where he needed to be.
Fortunately, this did not last long whatsoever and ended up being a bump in the long road that is known as the DY season. Not only did Hutson regain form, he took the next level. Lane's scoring totals this year turned out to be 63 points in 60 games, which is remarkable production for a player of his magnitude. Better yet, the event data tracked tells the tale of a player who borders on hyper-efficiency levels of value in terms of driving play up ice and generating chances all over the offensive zone.
Yet this does not seem to have bridged the divide between those two opposing extremes I mentioned earlier. If anything, I think the divide has grown even larger. I will state right away that I believe in Lane Hutson and have him ranked pretty high considering the risk that is baked into selecting him; however, the root cause of the issue that made scouts hesitant before has not improved to the extent that they wanted, meaning it is completely understandable that scouts simply do not want to take on such risk with a high pick.
Why is this? What are these risks that make Hutson so volatile for both public and private scouts alike? What is the best-case scenario for Hutson, and what is the worst case? We'll be going through all of this and more throughout the final installment to this series before the draft, so without further ado: Let’s Have a Conversation about Lane Hutson.
Strengths and Weaknesses
In the matter of transparency: the original video used for this section, as well as its write up was unfortunately lost as that hard drive went goodbye. These are the reserve clips being used which aren’t as specific as I’d like them to be, but still capture the overall gist of what I’m saying. If possible, new clips will be added in after. Apologies to all.
Hutson's largest weakness is the clear and obvious one: size. At 5'8", Lane Hutson instantly projects as one of the smallest players in the NHL across all positions, not just defenders. The list of high-end rearguards that match his height is extremely miniscule across the entire history of the NHL. We'll be talking more about this later, but it was mentioned here because it is something that must be kept in the back of your mind when reading about his strengths.
The reason for that is simple -- Lane Hutson's strengths are near-fantastical. A dynamic rearguard that is offensive in the truest sense of the word, in a way that transcends just being useful on the powerplay or showing some flash while beating opposing players in isolation plays. He is capable of efficiently driving play all the way up the ice, starting from a defensive retrieval and ending behind the opposition's goal line. There are so many details that I don't even know where to start, so I guess the easiest place to start with Hutson is as deep into his defensive zone as possible.
Defensive retrievals are a mixed bag for Hutson. On one hand, he is susceptible to overly aggressive players initiating contact to knock him off the puck. On the other hand, a significant strength of his (that will be mentioned time and time again throughout this piece) is his ability to anticipate and efficiently manage incoming pressure. Hutson's pre-scanning habits prior to every touch allows him to accurately map out all the immediate threats and possible outlet options, decide on what play he wants to execute, devise a plan to execute on that play and then follow through with it. This is a process that most defenders should already have a strong grasp on at this point in their career, but very few they display such mastery multiple times a game. As of now, this is a skill that lacks consistency because Hutson’s aforementioned weakness to physical play means almost all of his solutions to problems will require beating F1 in ways that prevent physicality, especially against the boards. If Hutson is able to beat F1 and bypass any other physical barriers in a close proximity, then he is able to immediately build off of his advantage due to his expertise in starting defensive breakouts.
Whether it’s bypass or carry, Hutson is simply one of the best transitional defenders the 2022 class has to offer. Part of this is due to how he curates’ solutions for defensive retrievals that reward him with the time and space required to execute efficient up-ice attacks, and the other part is his ability to make complex, yet quick reads that account for multiple defensive layers at once. He identifies whoever isn’t being accounted for in coverage, whether it’s himself or a teammate, and exploits that gap in coverage until a defensive shift takes place.
These shifts are where Hutson's transitional game takes an even larger step forward, as his macro-sense for high-level hockey elevates him alongside the very best playdrivers in the class, regardless of position. Hutson’s not only masterful at identifying soft spots prior to defensive shifts but is also capable of accurately reading the shift and seeing where new weak spots develop -- both during and after the shift is finished. From there, they’re exploited with a wide range of plays, ranging from simple passes and carries through space that the defense has neglected, to complex reads made two to three plays in advance to bait the defensive shift one way before striking them the other. This is where Hutson's brain really starts to shine amongst his peers, as his manipulation game extends beyond just one player in an isolated encounter -- he is capable of being a puppet master, manipulating multiple defenders at once to focus on a faux threat, waiting to strike the weak joints when they're least expecting it. This level of calculated, team-affecting deception is what makes Lane Hutson superior to the majority of players that share his height. It's his bread and butter, and likely the development focus of any team that drafts him.
To avoid this becoming a puff piece, it's worth mentioning that there are still some level of consistency issues with this macro-manipulation. There are some decisions Hutson makes that tend to work out at this level but simply will not work in the NHL, calling the overall efficiency within his game into question when projecting him from his current level of competition to the best league in the world. Efficiency and consistency are topics that are examined in more detail later on but this was worth mentioning now considering these are most of the fundamental weaknesses in his game as it currently exists.
As a puck carrier in transition, Hutson adheres to every fundamental you're looking for in order to make a clean NHL projection. He understands the value of driving forward along the dotted lines, a useful technique that forces defenders to avoid overcommitting to guarding the middle or perimeter lanes as this route provides easy access to both. Players like Hutson exploit this by baiting defenders to either the perimeter or middle before attacking their ankles the other way. Lane also prioritizes gaining the zone with control, preferably through the middle, and is extremely apt with understanding what space he has to operate in as he enters the zone. He's comfortable making any play necessary within these conditions, whether it's driving forward to the net, curling back into more space and passing towards a trailer or setting up a complex, first pass that forces a defensive shift.
Hutson's transitional strengths aren't only bolstered as the puck carrier. In fact, I think many would argue that he functions better as a distributor in transition. Once again, Hutson combines his micro and macro manipulation to shift foes at his will, opening up space for his linemates to work with. Unsurprisingly, Lane Hutson in open space is able to inflict massive damage to defenders if they choose to overly-pressure him as the carrier. The same sense that is used to create carrying lanes for himself can now be applied in ways that manipulate complex passing lanes that he can distribute through with ease.
Hutson’s transitional game is all focused around quick-fire attacks through gaps in coverage. The above plays demonstrate a variety of defensive coverages, ranging from fully set active defenders that need to be baited and carried/passed around, to broken down structures that are quickly shifting as fast as possible into a set formation that Hutson takes advantage of. The key is how fast he processes the information, the range of attacks he chooses from, the efficiency of the plays and how attune he is with the space surrounding him. While his preference is to turn these attacks into quickfire weapons, there are plays he makes by altering the pace and slowing down -- the result of recognizing the space he already is in is more valuable than where he can go and he benefits more from drawing them out and/or changing speeds.
I think it's important to distinguish between passing and playmaking as they aren't always the same thing -- passing is simply the act of passing to another teammate, while playmaking (for one's self and their linemates) is the result of manipulating defenders in a way that sets up a macro-driving play. I think it's clear at this point that I really believe in the brain powering Hutson's playmaking ability. What may not be as clear is just how good Hutson's passes themselves are, and how simple he makes receptions for his teammates. Every type of pass exists in Lane's arsenal, and every single one is fired with pristine levels of accuracy -- regardless of how complex the lane is or how many defenders he has to manipulate prior to the actual pass. A good, clean pass is often underappreciated by fans but any half decent player can tell you how big of a boost it is to play with someone where you know you won't need to contort your current body positioning or overextend your reach to catch the puck. Regardless of whether the recipient is in-motion or not, Hutson fires laser beams that land right on their blade. This accuracy gives them the chance to make a play without bobbling the puck for two tenths of a second. That may not seem like a tremendous amount of time, but it is often an advantage so significant that it ends up distinguishing NHL top six forwards from fourth liners. While a lot of the onus is on the recipient themselves to intelligently position themselves and skillfully corral the puck, having a defender that can send picturesque passes at this frequency is a huge advantage for any team. This will allow for extremely versatile passing in the NHL, ranging from clever short-range give-and-go’s with linemates to bypass numerous defensive threats at once, as well as difficult long-distance area passes where Hutson targets open-space that a teammate is skating towards and times the pass so that the recipient doesn’t have to break stride for a clean reception.
These are just some of Hutson’s assists in the offensive zone but show how willing he is to get into the play and manipulate the game to his will for these lanes to exist. Some are through tight traffic, finding the near-impossible seam that through multiple opponents to teammates stick without them having to move a muscle for a catch and release shot, others are his ability to challenge defenders as the carrier himself and apply lateral mobility and skill-moves together in order to become truly manipulative and create lanes from nothing.
Hutson's playmaking as a whole extends beyond just his transitional game, as it is unsurprisingly just as strong an element within the offensive zone. This is where the skill shines more than ever, equally complimenting his game sense and passing ability to become one of the most dangerous players you can find in the draft. Anyone who has seen him play even one game has likely seen the patented side-step, weight transfer move he does to pressuring forwards. It is arguably the most overused aspect of his game, one that could stand to be used a little less frequently, but is still extremely effective, nonetheless. The threat is in his posture before the move is even executed, as his posture allows him to threaten a carry, shot or pass to somewhere else in the zone at any point prior to the weight-shift. The pressure comes towards him and Hutson invites it, knowing his gravitational pull creates space to operate in behind the opposition. As soon as they commit their momentum to defending any specific threat Hutson fakes, he then transfers his weight and drags the puck around the opposition, allowing him to burst into this newly opened space where he has the time to start deconstructing defensive layers to make a big play.
This is just one skill in his arsenal, and while its overuse resulted in it being the obvious example to use for this section, I should be empathetic that Hutson's skill is not only limited to the mastery of this one trick. He has extremely deceptive hands that become a much more dangerous problem when you realize that every touch of the puck is done with the purpose of not only solving the immediate problem, but creating solutions that bolster his team's advantage after the fact -- offering more macro-driving possibilities.
His goal scoring tendencies are worthy of praise as well. Hutson absolutely loves driving into the OZ to try and create a shooting opportunity as deep into the OZ as possible, maximizing the efficiency of every scoring chance he can get.
These are some of Hutson’s more impressive net-drives of the year. Notice his posture and how he never fully commits to shooting, keeping other play-options alive. He navigates traffic and understands what direction and what time incoming pressure will come from. He consistently manages to protect the puck with either reach or a skill-move without breaking stride. The speed itself is enough to get the job done here and that will be a limit at the next level (more below on that) but the process from his first touch to the shot itself is projectable in terms of how Hutson is reading the ice.
Something that is a little more debatable is his shot. Fortunately, Hutson is far from a point-shot spammer, and will almost always prefer to drive down the offensive funnel before releasing a shot. Unfortunately, the only goals Hutson will likely score as of now are up close because his shot lacks power and is not a reliable threat in the offensive zone from afar. There is room for optimism here, as there are weight transfer inefficiencies within his shot that can be addressed to improve his shot from a form perspective. General strength training will help as well. Both are likely required to make his shot at least a threat that needs to be respected from the blue line at the next level. While point shots themselves are often deemed inefficient, the threat of a point shot is still very useful. If defenders do not see much of a threat, they won’t play as far out in an attempt to stop the shot and this creates more bodies in middle ice for the offense to break down. It also means there is less reason for Hutson to draw opponents to the blue line to use his patented side-steps in the first place. He can circumvent this with impeccable timing, but I don’t think it’s going to be an issue that timing alone can solve in the NHL. Fortunately, with years of training I think the shot itself can become more than respectable enough to demand the attention that Hutson wants it to, and that attention from a distance is what will provide Lane more space to work with after beating the first layer of pressure. I’d rather see him stepping into this space to shoot anyways, so anything that can make this an easier process is a win in my books.
If it isn't obvious by now, Hutson's capabilities as an on-puck attacker are extremely high end and he stands as one of, if not arguably the most sophisticated defenders in this draft. Fortunately for him, these strengths continue when he doesn't have the puck either. Hutson's player mapping and accurate macro reads extend his already laudy skillset, now including the ability to time his routes and position himself accordingly off-puck to offer his linemates as much as possible. This is most evident in the offensive zone, as he has some of the best sense of timing regarding offensive activations as you can find. Hutson does not shy from playing deeper in the offensive zone, but he does not do so with unnecessary risk either -- usually positioning himself in a zone where he is capable of playing defense if his team loses possession while also allowing lines to drive forward into space and catch unsuspecting defenders off guard. There are few things more dangerous than an unimpeded Lane Hutson deep in the zone as he identifies, targets and manipulates dangerous lanes to pass into or shoot from. This is offensive generation that is significantly more efficient than most blue liners that just fire pucks from distance and attempt their dangerous passes from beyond the faceoff circles, and while there are specific flaws that need to be refined (overreliance on specific skill moves, finding a bit more separation on inside drives, etc) the core essence here is highly projectable in terms of generating consistent results at the NHL level.
This same off-puck play serves Hutson well in both transitional and defensive zone play. His routes when transitioning up ice not only allow for Hutson to make quickfire plays if he was to receive a pass, but it also draws additional coverage and provides ample space for linemates to work with. Defensively, Hutson is on top of dangerous lanes and zones as they form and doesn't find himself lagging behind the play too frequently. The bulk of his work is done through proper positioning and timing his stick checks with near perfection. Of course, this is how he has to achieve positive results defensively considering any physical approach opens up the possibility of being heavily overpowered, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t highly skilled in doing so. I don’t think anyone who has spent considerable time watching Hutson is in fear of his ability to track play defensively and make the right reads but are more concerned about how much of a disadvantage he will have in the NHL and how perfect his defensive play will have to be to circumvent that issue. Some may disagree and I don't blame them, his defensive play doesn't boast the same consistency or efficiency that the rest of his play does, but I do think there is enough of a strong pattern in his off-puck reads defensively to believe that there is enough to work with to bring the weak points up to par.
All aspects of his game come together to form what I believe is to be the highest-level offensive rearguard this draft has to offer. Some of the individual traits mentioned above can be found in other top prospects, but I do not believe any of them have this level of macro-comprehension and manipulation while reading the game at an NHL pace. His lead isn’t so significant that there isn’t an argument for others, but in terms of what I am specifically looking for when evaluating players? I think it’s fair to see that Hutson sits at the very top.
There are still two physical flaws that exist within his game that may limit this game sense from truly becoming the weapon it should be: mobility and size. Let’s start with mobility.
Make no mistake, Lane Hutson is not an immobile player by any stretch of the imagination. He uses lateral mobility to constantly redirect the angle of attack, uses side-steps and shifty footwork to alter momentum in close-range and has reasonable speed to attack lanes of open space as a carrier. His game is already built to incorporate high-level mobility, which is a good thing because assuming improvements are made then the advantages become a near instantaneous payoff. It’s not all good though, as this situation creates a flaw as well: he is still far from being mobile enough to play his game as it currently exists at the NHL level. There is very little room for error here -- he simply must achieve a higher top end speed, first step acceleration, refined edgework and sharper lateral cuts. The only other option is to fundamentally change how Hutson impacts the game and force him to play a more reliable game, greatly limiting his potential. Considering the whole allure of selecting Hutson is potentially finding such a high-end talent outside of the first, altering his game to this extent feels like setting a pick on fire. With Hutson, the mobility has to be brought to a near-elite level by NHL standards or he doesn’t play. It’s as simple as that.
If you've read my previous work, this section may feel a bit out of sorts to you. I normally mention strengths and talk about how they are applied, but in lieu of that I've focused a lot more on his game sense and decision making from the defensive zone to the offensive zone. The reason being is that so much of what makes Hutson amazing isn't just how great his tools are, but how well he consistently uses them across all three zones, and nothing makes this more evident than talking about each facet of his game individually. Regardless, there isn’t much more that can be said about Hutson that doesn’t involve the critical flaws, otherwise we stray from an honest analysis. There is a significantly large elephant in the room that needs to be addressed that might make projecting all of this impossible to the NHL -- his size.
I often hear about Lane Hutson's 5'8 stature viewed as a lethal endeavor or not a big deal due to his efficient game processing. Both views are understandable -- the former for obvious reasons, the latter for less obvious but somewhat understandable reasons. After all, we have 5'9 forwards finding success in the NHL, and we have 5'9 defenders finding success in the NHL. What's the significance of one final inch? Why is that extra teensiest bit of length such a difference maker? Do we think this way because some level of pre-existing bias exists? After all, we were told the "height limit" of defenders was 6' for years. Then one exceptional defender came and broke the barrier, showing it can be done at smaller heights. One by one, this notion of a "minimum height requirement" lowers just a bit more over the years as more defenders come through and show that they can be effective in the NHL even though “they're shorter than they should be".
I am a part of a new generation of talent evaluators, one that grew up watching these smaller players become more and more viable across the league. It is a lot easier for me to look at Hutson and his talent while thinking "it's been done before, why can’t Hutson be an exception as well” because it’s hard to watch Hutson and see anything but an exceptional hockey player. Still, this older bias that often stands against players of his ilk in favour of bigger, stronger, taller players exists for a reason and it’s important we remember why when trying to go even smaller with our defenders.
Before, defensive strategies weren't complex because attacking systems weren't complex themselves. Physical prowess was enough to make the required plays and win games, often because grit and tenacity were the defining attributes of key players (even though their success still came from understanding the game better and knowing how to use their tools). The advantages of mobility and skill had not been fully realized.
Fast forward to the modern era, where team tactics are so advanced that the sport has become almost unrecognizable, and where players have become so remarkably talented that the idea of them going up against 50's and 60's skaters has you wondering what would stop them from scoring 15 goals a game against a standup goalie and a grizzled player group that were chain smoking cigarettes before the game. Size is no longer a prerequisite to perform well, and this bias is being removed a little bit more each year.
This shouldn’t ever take away from a core principle that exists in our beloved game -- every aspect of the game is easier with reach, size and strength, so long that the excess reach doesn't impact handling ability to an extent where their skill level drops off. These players have an easier time denying lanes with extended sticks, engaging physically against puck carriers, overcoming physical defensive pressure upon retrievals, denying power forwards and just about every other aspect of the game where physicality is present. Smaller players have to solve these problems just as much. If they are unable to physically match their foes then they have to account for them in different ways, removing potential solutions and possibly increasing predictability.
All of this goes back to "it's just an inch". Yes, it is just an inch, and it really was not a big deal when the bias was lowered from 6' to 5'11. Then it was lowered once more to 5'10 and as it turns out, if you're good enough you can still play. Once it became 5'9 then we realized that the exceptionally talented, regardless of size, are able to play and make a notable impact in the NHL. This now leaves us saying "5'8 Lane Hutson has the possibility to play in the NHL", a statement that I do agree with wholeheartedly; however, the margin of difficulty increases exponentially with every inch that's removed as we get closer and closer to discovering what the true height limit of the NHL is.
Are we eventually going to reach a point in time where 5'5 players are demonstrating inconceivable levels of skill to make it in the show? Are we eventually going to reach a point where we realize okay, at a certain point, too small does exist outside of the most extreme of exceptions? Are we currently at that limit where the smallest players that can play are 5'8/5'9 and still require absurd levels of skill to make it? If so, are the concerns about Hutson's projection in the NHL legitimate considering that, despite his overwhelming strengths, he has just enough flaws to land just shy of that talent/height barrier?
I don't have the answers to these questions, but I think it's extremely important for those in the pro-Hutson camp to consider the tall mountain ahead of him to make the NHL. Saying "it's just an inch" is only infallible if, at the time of the draft, it is overwhelmingly clear that the player has every means they will need to play their game at an NHL level. Otherwise, that inch really is a monstrous difference maker considering the thin margins that define NHL stardom and a draft bust can often be found by how well someone operates within that inch of space on the ice.
Regardless, I am still sticking to my guns here with Hutson even though I fully acknowledge the above statement to be true. In terms of processing ability, passing arsenal and the rest of his elite skills, Hutson stands near a tier of his own amongst defenders in this class -- so much so that I have zero hesitation claiming him as a potential top five challenger if he was 5'11 and not 5'8. It is really difficult to still be so high on him knowing the skating deficiencies and how significant they can be down the line, yet I will acknowledge that risk as I ranked him within the top 20 for my final list (and took him for my own Samuel Canadiens where I make a selection every time the Habs do). The skating must be fixed, and there are public reports from extremely respectable scouts who have detailed analysis stating why this is a tough task due to mechanical inefficiencies within his stride.
This is where my own personal philosophy comes into play. I view everything I do as if I'm a member of an NHL team, who will communicate with the development staff with regards to certain issues. In the hypothetical situation that I was working with a team, I would not be as high on Hutson if I knew for a fact that the very development team that would be working with him did not share faith they could address the issues at hand. On the flip side, if I was bestowed a vote of confidence that Hutson's mobility issues were no problem and they can do enough to get his mobility to the required level, then I would raise Hutson on my list even higher. But this is strictly a hypothetical and I don't have this luxury, so I make an educated guess that kind of ends up in the middle -- acknowledging the severity of the issues at hand, as well as the difficulty in addressing them, but also understanding that a significant percentage of NHL players have wonky mechanics detailed in their strengths and that these quirks stop mattering the second the player shows they can still get the job done in the show. Hutson may not get the perfect fix to be mechanically flawless and that's okay, so long as he is able to move at the minimal level required to translate his game to the pros.
There are some who may disagree with the idea that increased mobility is all Hutson needs to overcome this size deficit, and they may have been disagreeing with the notion that Hutson is the epitome of an efficient, rearguard attacker all along. This has been a particularly interesting topic of debate amongst scouts and some of the most engaging conversations I’ve had this year were focused on this very topic.
Is Hutson truly as efficient as I initially claimed? This is an extremely nuanced area of conversation where I don’t really think someone can be objectively right or wrong.
There are general patterns that can be picked up when watching Hutson that I think shows his focus is on efficiently performing the most impactful play he can make. Sometimes this is a simple pass through an unguarded lane. Sometimes it’s a deceptive no-look backhand pass off the boards that an aggressive teammate can easily pick off. Sometimes it’s drawing in pressure to skillfully escape into the space the opposition leaves behind to start a 3 on 2 rush up the ice. The key here is that there is no limit to the versatility that Hutson exhibits when looking for the next play to make.
While I fully believe in the above statement, this doesn’t mean that Hutson doesn’t overly rely on a few specific plays that will almost assuredly have issues against better players. As mentioned before, Hutson is way too comfortable with the side-step weight transfer to escape incoming defenders. NHL defenders will not fall for it to the extent that USHL/NCAA defenders will, and even those that do will have the means to take that space back and present more problems for Hutson to deal with due to the additional mobility and physical strength the average NHLer has. The jump in competition really cannot be overstated enough -- it is absolutely massive. This side-step is not the only aspect of his game that is currently overused, and it does speak to a bit of a worrying idea that he struggles more to break these patterns that he has grown accustomed to using than I’m anticipating. After all, at his current level, these weapons are finding success on a near shift-to-shift basis, and prospects only tend to start altering these aspects after they begin to be exposed. These patterns may become too entrenched in his game, causing a sudden yet significant disruption in his intended development path. Many prospects don’t get past it.
I think Hutson will reach a point where he struggles with his usual bag of tricks, but I also cannot ignore the many unique solutions I’ve seen over the year. I do have faith in his ability to correct these patterns.
His overreliance on skill moves feels like the obvious response to the fact that he is a shorter player without an explosive stride. You can almost feel the years of coaches saying, “you aren’t going to find space elsewhere”, slowly developing an over-dependence on his skill with every season that passed. Depending on how an interview process would go, it’s entirely possible that Hutson is aware of this overreliance on individual moves but is currently using them as they are an efficient means of consistently solving individual problems over the ice in ways that allow him to control and contribute to macro-play afterwards.
This kind of summarizes my entire perspective on Hutson’s efficiency in terms of projection as well. The way he leverages his solutions to various micro-encounters to also impact the macro-game is utterly brilliant, and I believe this is a strength that will only become more and more pronounced as he cuts the bad habits that exist in his game. It’s rare to find a player who is this skilled at reading play that is unable to trim the fat in their own playstyle.
This is where the additional mobility really comes into play when talking about the rest of Hutson’s game in detail. Assuming Hutson can generate more separation off of his first step, then these skill moves will become significantly more dangerous. Considering he already uses skill so well, his projection becomes much more positive when you picture what he can achieve with the additional mobility. Combine this with strengths that already exist, like laser-beam passes from contorted body positions, and his deceptive potential truly transcends past what the other 2022 defenders have to offer.
However, not everyone concerned with Hutson’s inefficiency is thinking about offense. There are undeniable issues with projecting his defense in its current form. Everyone makes defensive mistakes at some point but very few are given as little leeway as Hutson likely will have due to his size.
Hutson’s defensive positioning, ability to read developing plays and his usage of the stick to close valuable defensive lanes are all strengths that you can build an effective defensive player out of; however one can question how much that really matters considering his body does not take up a lot of space, his stick does not take up a lot of space and his feet don’t allow him to cover the amount of space necessary if his body and/or stick are mispositioned at the wrong time. His defensive fundamentals have to be perfect to overcome being 5’8 with a smaller wingspan. There are a multitude of ways attackers can punish him for simply not taking up as much space as other NHL defenders can. He isn’t in control of these situations as the majority of the time he’s forced to play defense under the conditions set by the attacker. It is unreasonable to expect a defender to be perfectly positioned at all times, so there is only so much one can do to overcome this outside of developing a longer reach. That solution is taken out of the hands of humans as we sit idly by waiting to see how kind biology wants to be.
It’s unclear how much extra mobility really gets to come into play and fix things here. It does alleviate the situation to some extent as being able to change directions more sharply and cover more ground with the same number of steps has obvious advantages. While being perfectly positioned at all times is an unreasonable ask, he can still be positioned well the vast majority of the time to create as much of an advantage in defensive situations as possible. This advantage may not last long, and it may be easier for attackers to turn this advantage for Hutson into a disadvantage, but it’s still an advantage. Theoretically, an advantage state in any sport can be snowballed into a larger and larger advantage if utilized properly without faults. That’s where this additional mobility can really help Hutson out as it provides him with a larger margin for error to maintain/grow his positional advantage over attackers. It’s not perfect because well-executed attacks can rob Hutson of the luxury of always having perfect positioning, but it does make a large enough difference where Hutson’s defensive game becomes more projectable to the NHL.
The question is just how often Hutson can play in this perfect defensive spot and honestly, there are just too many complicated unknown variables to come up with a definitive answer at this moment. Additional mobility will change his approach for the better, but to what extent is just too hard to discern as of now. While this may seem like a cop out answer, no one really knows how this part of his game will truly change except for the personnel involved with developing it. I lean towards a more positive outlook myself because once again, I trust the intelligence of the player.
Regardless of a positive or a negative outlook, something to consider when projecting Hutson’s defending is that “perfect positioning” is a near-impossibility considering the speed of the modern NHL and even Nick Lidstrom would struggle to maintain such a monumental impression defensively on the ice (well, he would be fine, he’d just need to change a few things). Hockey moves extremely fast and the high-level systems of today are built to provide multiple options for attackers, meaning that a defender can’t account for all of them. Our beloved game may be a game of controlled chaos, but chaos is chaos -- no player can account for it all at once and anything can happen on any given play. Adaptability is what will help Hutson the most and I trust his sense for the game to help him in this area, but expecting tangible defensive results that shut down the other team may just be an impossibility given his size.
Fortunately, the best defending is not letting the other team have the puck and this is where we go full circle to where we started -- Hutson’s ability to help macro-play from DZ to OZ when his team has the puck. Assuming mobility comes into play as needed and the inefficient tendencies are worked out, Hutson will be an extremely useful player in terms of possession and finding results that better his team. His decision making is not often wasteful, and he tries to make the most out of every play he attempts out there. If it all comes together in the right way, then Hutson’s team is very likely to outpossess the opposition, meaning less defensive zone time to begin with. As long as there is enough there defensively to ensure a zone entry against him isn’t a guaranteed goal against, then I think Hutson really can turn all of these flaws into strengths and become a true impact player at the NHL level.
This is the first time I get to release a piece on a player while knowing their inevitable destination due to the draft and I have to say, I’m ecstatic that he is a Montreal Canadien. It’s not often my favourite team and player in the draft get to intersect, but here we are.
Player development was arguably the greatest weakness of the Bergevin-era Habs and had that regime been in charge, we very likely would not have selected Hutson at 62nd. Even if we had, there is a lot of work to be done along the next few years to ensure Hutson’s development path does address the biggest weaknesses in his game and it’s really tricky picturing the old guard addressing those concerns properly.
The new-era Habs managed by Kent Hughes have put a severe emphasis on skill, mobility and intelligence. Dangerous in-motion players who are adaptable problem solvers will thrive amidst the new identity the Canadiens are building for themselves, and it’s far from surprising that it was the Canadiens who saw Hutson still available in the late second and took the swing on his upside. Management has already overhauled the developmental side of the organization, specifically for players like Lane Hutson that offer overwhelming potential under the right circumstances, and you don’t need to look further than the early development camp that Hutson is rocking out at to see the early investment from all parties involved.
I may be biased, but I do believe there are few spots as beneficial for both parties involved than the Habs and Hutson working together. The Canadiens are already well aware of everything I have mentioned throughout this piece and are actively working from day one to make sure they’re as little a problem as possible. I am ecstatic to see where it comes and cannot wait to see how Hutson develops over the next few years.