Less may mean more for Hutton and Stecher
Indifferent play. A mumps scare. A hand injury.
You name it, and Ben Hutton experienced it last season. He never meshed with Erik Gudbranson, struggling to handle major minutes and indecision in his game that smacked of a sophomore slump.
Still, Hutton managed five goals on a back end that couldn’t stay healthy and couldn’t find the net with just a collective 23 goals. And he never lost his trademark, glasshalf-full approach to the game and to life.
“There wasn’t a lot of time where you were playing 10 or 15 games with the same partner,” Hutton recalled Thursday before facing the Winnipeg Jets. “I learned you have to make chemistry with every player and there are going to be nights when you’re feeling it and the puck is always on your stick and you’re making great plays.
“And there are other nights when you just have to play a chess game, chip (the puck) out when you can because there’s not always going to be a play. It’s give and take.”
A new, uptempo system and new defensive deployments should mean more give from Hutton, 24, and his new partner Troy Stecher, 23, who both like to jump up into the play and create odd-man rushes.
Hutton finished second in rookie blue-liner assists (24) and was third in points (25) in 201516, while Stecher is coming off a 24-point rookie season in which he also had ample power-play time.
“Last game (Tuesday), I was going to jump up and I look to my right and Stecher is right there,” said Hutton. “He was half a stride ahead of me, so I just checked my shoulder and there were a couple of players behind me, so I just laid off.
“It’s today’s game. You watch the highlights and it’s defencemen jumping up and making a 2-on-2 a 3-on-2 or a 3-on-3 a 4-on-3, with more options. That’s going to create a lot more offence for us.”
Yet that’s where it’s going to get interesting defensively as a third pairing.
Fewer minutes can mean more effectiveness when you’re still learning the game and don’t have a seasoned National Hockey League partner to lean on and feed off of. Hutton logged 17:09 and 17:13 in his first two regular-season outings, a far cry from the 23:09 and 20:00 he played in the first two games a year ago.
Stecher played 13:40 and 12:41 in the first two games this season compared to 22:35 and 19:49 in his first two games last year after being recalled from the AHL’s Utica Comets and becoming a fixture with Alex Edler on the first pairing.
The challenge for Hutton and Stecher is to be as good in their own zone as they have the potential to be out of it. Against the Ottawa Senators, who forecheck ferociously and employ the 1-3-1 trap, Hutton tried to play the puck behind his own net in a crucial third-period sequence. He was stripped and it resulted in the tying goal en route to a 3-2 Senators shootout win.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be a pretty game,” said Hutton. “They set the trap and sit back and wait for you to make mistakes.”
Ben Hutton, left, hugging Reid Boucher, finished second among rookie blue-liners with 24 assists two seasons ago.