The NHL has changed a lot in the past two decades, favouring skill more than size, and that means many smaller players are finding success. This season, the 5’9” Johnny Gaudreau finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting, and Quinn Hughes, who is listed at 5’10”, rode a 68-point season to a spot on five ballots for the Norris Trophy.
At 5’8”, Lane Hutson is hoping the success for shorter NHLers continues through his own playing career, and as a defenceman he’ll be modeling his game more after Quinn Hughes, Torey Krug, and other small blue-liners. At least in his Junior career, he did a good job of setting himself up on that path, going into the 2022 NHL Draft as arguably the best offensive defenceman available.
Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois
Date of birth: February 14, 2004
Weight: 159 lbs.
Team: U.S. National Team Development Program
At the conclusion of his season he had produced 63 points in 60 games with the USNTDP, approaching one assist per contest. That made him the highest-scoring blue-liner on the team by a significant margin, and the first point-per-game defenceman since Cam York accomplished that feat in 2018-19.
Hutson’s playmaking talent was also seen at the World Under-18 Championship, where he had eight assists in six games, earning the award for the tournament’s best defenceman, to go along with a silver medal.
He was recently recognized for traits beyond his offensive abilities, selected as the winner of the E.J. McGuire Award of Excellence as the draft-eligible prospect who “best exemplifies commitment to excellence through strength of character, competitiveness and athleticism.”
As a smaller player, his competitiveness was critical to even get on a scout’s radar. If he just put in the effort when there was a chance to add to his points tally, he would be quickly written off by anyone looking for future NHL talent. Some have certainly already done that based on his measurements alone, but a lack of work ethic isn’t one of the things that can be used against him. He tries to make plays happen whenever he’s on the ice, and started many of the offensive plays for his USNTDP teammates.
The effort level is vitally important to his draft stock, but that’s not the attribute that places him in high regard. His main skill is his deceptiveness, which makes him one of the most dangerous players in the class when he has the puck on his stick.
He has great vision to set up his teammates, and his passes are quick and accurate. He opens the door for those plays by not automatically dishing the puck off when a defender approaches, but often challenges him one-on-one. A low centre of gravity makes him nimble enough to dart around the ice, quick hands pull the puck out of reach of those trying to check him with their stick rather than their body, and convincing feints have players believing he’s making one move as he goes on to complete something entirely different.
Right now, one of those deceptions is a fake shot that freezes defenders, but when he does actually launch a puck on goal, the power and accuracy isn’t high enough to be a threat. Professional players and coaches will quickly learn that they don’t have to respect his release, and that method of fooling defenders will no longer be viable. Opponents will focus more on the passing lanes he exploits so well as a teenager.
Few of his peers attempted to lead breakouts and offensive-zone entries as often as Hutson this season. Once he gains possession in the defensive zone, he leads the march up the ice to turn that into offence. When he’s built up his speed, he’s tough to stop at the opponent’s blue line where his tricky manoeuvres come into play, but that build-up takes time for him, and a lack of acceleration in transitions is a flaw that will hold him back.
His overall poor skating mechanics are cause for concern, only making the criticisms about his size more valid. Quickness to escape puck battles would ease some doubts about how his game would translate to the NHL, but he doesn’t have the torque to make that happen.
It’s a similar story when he’s defending. As long as he’s already moving at a good pace, he keeps up with attacking forwards and has the mobility to react to their moves and shut them down. If he’s forced to build speed as an opponent comes his way, he’s easily beaten, and that shows up in a very poor zone-entry prevention rank in the microstats above. He has difficulty matching speeds while skating backward and struggles with pivots when an opponent gets level with him.
The skating deficiencies could be dealt with if he were a bigger player able to get his body in the way of attackers. The small size could be compensated for with excellent skating technique that let him shadow any move an opponent makes. Without both of those things, there are some legitimate doubts about his ability to crack an NHL blue line.
Elite Prospects: #47
Hockey Prospect: #42
Bob McKenzie (TSN): #72
NHL Central Scouting: #25 (North American skaters)
Corey Pronman (The Athletic) #22
Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): #19
Several prospect outlets see the offensive talents as too good to ignore and deem him worthy of a first-round selection. Others have more concerns about his weaknesses and rank him as a second-round prospect. The most telling ranking in this case, while not final, is that from Bob McKenzie which polls NHL scouts for their opinions, and that happens to have Hutson much lower than any other list.
Many of the analysts who have watched him play recognize the incredible talent that he possesses and hold that in high regard. He has valuable skills that should work well in the game’s top league. Those whose job it is to make sure their team is using this important event to build its championship calibre are significantly less impressed. They see the issues with his physical abilities as critical flaws that don’t lead to the impact NHLer they’re looking for.
The team that does decide to select him can’t do much about his height (although apparently a late growth spurt runs in his family, as stated in the E.J. McGuire Award announcement article above), but it can try to fix his poor skating mechanics. Some guidance on more efficient strides would pay off in a big way if it means he gets more space and time and make plays with the puck.
His NHL club will likely be hoping to pair him with a complementary defenceman who excels more at the shutdown aspects of the positions and wants to let Hutson focus on his offensive talents, and it will probably be an organization that has enough depth in the pipeline to take such a risk without placing all of their hopes in a player who may not pan out. There’s a lot of development that needs to take place for him to reach his potential, but a team that can help him pass all of those tests could have a rare talent at the end of that road.