It’s probably a spot of bother for the Edmonton Oilers that they’ll be starting the 2021 condensed regular season without defenceman Oscar Klefbom.
When he’s healthy, he’s been one of their top performers on the blue line often earning the trust and praise of his coaches. Last season he lead the team in average minutes played per game, with over 25, regularly facing top competition every night. He was a key part of the powerplay and penalty kill, leading all defencemen in total ice time for both situations.
“Ultimately, you look at your bench and you look at players you can put into a situation where they can help you win the most,” Tippett explained earlier in the season. “When he’s on the ice that much, he must be doing some good things.
“That’s what we think of him.” (Source: Edmonton Oilers)
And it’s probably what Oilers management thinks of him as well considering how often the Oilers come up in recent free agent rumors surrounding the available defenceman.
The Edmonton Oilers are exploring several options for a left shot defenceman. One of those options: UFA Ben Hutton. I'm told there is serious interest, but there are multiple teams in the mix.— David Pagnotta (@TheFourthPeriod) December 24, 2020
Unless the Oilers are willing to move assets, the Oilers probably won’t be able to replace Klefbom and what he typically brings to the team with one of the available free agents. What they can try to do however is address each area of the team that he impacts the most and find suitable replacements for those.
For example, his puck distribution and offensive skill will definitely be missed on the powerplay unit that dominated the league last season. But the Oilers have added 29-year old Tyson Barrie, who has over 500 games of experience and was a key part of the Leafs powerplay, which finished the 2019/20 season with the sixth highest rate of goals-for per hour. There will need to be some adjustments considering Barrie is a right-shot defenceman, but you can see the Oilers mitigation strategy.
It still, however, remains to be seen how exactly Klefbom’s even-strength (5v5) and penalty kill impact is going to be replaced. The Oilers may have some confidence in someone like Caleb Jones or William Lagesson, both of which have spent time developing within a good development program in Bakersfield, to take on those minutes. Jones in particular has been given opportunities in Edmonton, having now played 60 NHL games and was averaging more ice time than veteran Kris Russell at the end of the 2019/20 regular season.
Whatever internal options the coaching staff has confidence in, it’s imperative that the Oilers add a defenceman with even-strength and penalty killing experience. And Ben Hutton, who the Oilers are rumored to be in on, makes some sense considering his age and 300+ games of experience, and especially if the cost and term is kept minimal.
Hutton was drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 draft and made the Canucks opening night roster in 2015 following three seasons at the University of Maine. In his rookie season as a 23-year old, and because of the injury issues on the Canucks blueline, he finished second on the team among defenceman in total ice-time and had the most points among defenceman with 25. He was largely sheltered in those minutes, averaging the fifth highest minutes per game, leaving the likes of Edler, Hamhuis and Tanev to play against more of the top line competition. Hutton did also lead the Canucks defencemen in powerplay ice time, but his on-ice results were poor. The Canucks as a team finished 28th in the league in points percentage that season, only ahead of Edmonton and Toronto, with the powerplay finishing 27th overall scoring only 5.53 goals per hour.
Hutton went on to play three more seasons in Vancouver, with the team missing the playoffs all three seasons, before signing with Los Angeles when the Canucks did not make him a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. Over the course of his four-year career with Vancouver, Hutton saw his total ice time increase to over 22 minutes per game, getting more responsibility at even-strength, while his deployment on special teams shifted - more on that later.
|Season||Team||GP||Total TOI/GP||5v5 TOI/GP||PP TOI/GP||PK TOI/GP|
In his first three seasons with Vancouver, Hutton was often fifth or sixth among defencemen when it came to the total proportion of ice time playing against top line, or elite, competition according to Puck IQ. Because of the injuries to the Canucks blueline in his rookie season, Hutton played over 34% of his total ice time against elite competition. But for the next two seasons (2016/17 and 2017/18), that proportion of ice time was below 30% - probably right where he should be based on his skill set. He did well in those depth minutes, posting decent shot-share numbers relative to his teammates.
For each season below, I’ve included Hutton’s on-ice numbers at even-strength (5v5, score-adjusted) relative to his teammates. This includes Corsi For%, Expected Goals For% and Goals For% (descriptions can be found in the glossary). I’ve also included his on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage, which makes it obvious that he was on a pretty bad team in Vancouver and then in Los Angeles.
|Season||Team||GP||TOI/GP||CF% Rel||xG% Rel||GF% Rel||On-Ice SH%||On-Ice SV%||PDO|
What stands out is that when Hutton was being deployed at the correct level for his ability and skillset, he was just fine. In 2016/17 and 2017/18, he was a bottom pairing defenceman and the Canucks did better in terms of controlling the flow of play and scoring chances when he was on the ice. The goal-share took a hit, but that’s more likely due to a lack of scoring talent and goaltending.
When the Canucks coaching staff decided to give Hutton more ice time in 2018/19 against tougher competition, that’s when the wheels really fell off. Hutton posted a Corsi For% of 45.1% that season, one of the worst on the team and potentially due to playing a lot with Gudbranson. I suspect the Canucks wanted to see how much value they could get by signing Hutton to a new deal and perhaps they were showcasing him more to potentially trade him ahead of his arbitration hearing, I’m not sure. But it’s clear that Hutton wasn’t in a position to succeed, which might have dropped his overall value in the league.
The good news for Hutton is that he was deployed as a depth defenceman again in Los Angeles after signing a short-term, team-friendly deal that was probably more of a way for him to re-build his reputation. In Los Angeles, Hutton posted very nice numbers, with the team not only generating more chances with him on the ice, but also goals. The Kings were a very poor team this past season missing the playoffs, but with Hutton on the ice, they actually posted a positive goal-share (52.28%). If the Oilers are considering Hutton as an option at even-strength, they should probably try to emulate his deployment as a King. And if they do want to try him higher up in the lineup, he’ll need to be partnered with a skilled and mobile defenceman - and not someone like Gudbranson.
Where Hutton should be able to help the Oilers is on the penalty kill where he was transitioned to during his career in Vancouver and where he did very well in Los Angeles.
Aside from that 2018/19 season in Vancouver, Hutton’s on-ice numbers on the penalty kill have been solid with his teams allowing significantly fewer unblocked shot attempts against per hour (FA/60) with him on the ice.
|Season||Team||GP||TOI||TOI/GP||FA/60 Rel||GA/60 Rel||On-Ice SV%|
By his third year in Vancouver, Hutton was transitioned off of the powerplay, which he probably only got in his first two season because of the lack of defensive options and his projected upside, to the second penalty kill. While the Canucks 2017/18 penalty kill couldn’t buy a save, the skaters did a pretty remarkable job at preventing unblocked shot attempts, finishing with the third best rate against in the league. With Hutton on the ice, they were even better at suppressing shot attempts, dropping by another 15 unblocked shot attempts per hour. The coaching staff probably saw his positive impact in limited minutes the year before, took a risk and watched it pay off.
The 2018/19 season was a different story for Hutton on the penalty kill, but not terrible either. The Canucks finished in the top ten leaguewide in terms of unblocked shots against, but Hutton’s impact wasn’t as great. Perhaps it was playing more, heavier even-strength minutes or perhaps having Gudbranson as a partner, I’m unsure. But we see his overall minutes get managed a little better in Los Angeles the next season, with the coaching staff deploying him at the appropriate level, and his positive penalty kill impact shows up again. The Kings penalty kill went from being one of the worst in the league in 2018/19 to closer to league average in 2019/20, with the numbers being even better in terms of unblocked shot attempts against with Hutton on the ice. That’s multiple seasons where we see his positive impact relative to his teammates, which should be appealing to the Oilers considering they’ll need to add some experience to their penalty kill.
If the Oilers are seriously considering Hutton as an option, they should be aware of his limitations at even-strength and developing a contingency plan if he struggles trying to take on Klefbom’s minutes. The good news is that if say Jones or another prospect takes a step and fills Klefbom’s role at even-strength, they wouldn’t need to be burdened with penalty kill minutes as Hutton could be a good option there while taking on depth minutes, and doing well, at even-strength.
- Corsi For percentage (CF%) – The proportion of all the shot attempts the team generated and allowed that the team generated. This is used as a proxy for possession and can predict a team’s future share of goals (GF%).
- Expected Goals For percentage (xGF%): Measures the quality of the unblocked shots taken, and assigns a value to it depending on the probability of it becoming a goal. Key variables include the type of shot taken, where it was taken from and compares it to historical shot and goal data to determine the value. (Natural Stat Trick)
- Goals For percentage (GF%) – The proportion of all the goals that the team scored and allowed that the team generated (i.e., Goals For/(Goals For + Goals Against).
- Shooting percentage (SH%) – The percentage of the team’s shots on goal that became goals.
- Save percentage (SV%) – The percentage of the team’s shots on goal against that were saved.