One of the seemingly never ending debates in sports is the value of size. You cannot teach height. Frames can only put on so much muscle. How a player moves and hits and takes pressure is more valid than if they are a large person. No one wants a team of extremely small players. This is true in hockey, soccer, basketball, football, and so forth and all to valid and non-valid degrees. As New Jersey Devils fans, one would think the People Who Matter would be sympathetic to the small-yet-skilled player knowing how big Brian Gionta played on the ice. As well as sub-six foot players like Sergei Brylin, Brian Rafalski, Pat Verbeek, Aaron Broten, and Jesper Bratt have been or are important to the team when they were/are there. Yet, in every NHL draft class, there are players that seemingly have the substance but are significantly lacking in size. One of those players is the subject of today’s prospect profile: United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) U-18 defenseman Lane Hutson.
Who is Lane Hutson?
Lane Hutson was born on February 14, 2004 in Chicago. He’s the son of minor leaguer Rob Hutson and his older brother Quinn plays for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the United States Hockey League. Rob and Quinn are listed at 5’11”. Lane is listed at 5’8” and 148 pounds at Elite Prospects. USA Hockey listed him at 5’9” and 148 pounds prior to the World U-18 Championships - which I am not sure how real that is. He truly could be in between 68 and 69 inches. Still, the left-shooting defender is indeed that small.
For some of you, that is pretty much the end of the profile. Lane is very small and playing a position where that is a real problem. Why bother drafting him at all? As much as I think size does get overrated in hockey, I have to concede that it is going to be a constant problem for Hutson’s potential career. While Lane needs (and likely will) to obtain mass, the height is a real issue. Making it in pro hockey at 5’8” at all is a challenge enough. Doing so as a defenseman is incredibly difficult and very unlikely.
Emphasis should be on the unlikely. No defenseman who played in the NHL last season was officially listed at 68 inches. Even if Lane Hutson is now or becomes truly 5’9”, only eight in the entire league last season were listed at the nice height of 69 inches. Those eight include the super-talented Jared Spurgeon and Torey Krug. Plus Brad Hunt and Matt Grzelcyk, who have played in 241 and 307 season games, respectively. While those four should be proof that one can be solid or even great as a small blueliner, it is very rare for that to happen. And the list of 5’8” or smaller defensemen is even smaller over the past three decades. There have been only five defensemen since 1990-01 who were listed at 5’8” and played in the NHL. Two played for a while: Curt Giles (895 career games, played throughout the 1980s for Minnesota with a brief stop in Manhattan) and Francis Bouillon (776 games, mostly for Montreal in the 2000s). The other three did not play more than 30 each: Dan Lambert (29 games for Quebec), Curtis Murphy (1 game for the Wild in 2002-03), and Joe Hicketts (22 games for Detroit across 2017-18 to 2019-20). It would even be a tall task to even get a short stint in the NHL for Lane Hutson. However, if there is a player to make it in the NHL as an actual 5’8” defenseman, then Lane Hutson may be the guy.
Here is a short summary of what he has done so far as a player. After developing locally, Hutson made the move to the North Jersey Avalanche Under-16 AAA team in 2019-20. He put up 38 points in 19 games and was named as the AYHL 16U Premier All-American Defenseman for that season. His performances there and in the Youth Olympic Games brought him to the USNTDP program. He primarily played for the Under-17 team with 39 games and 19 points with them in 2020-21. Of those 39 games, 27 were for the USHL team and put up 14 points there and, more impressively, he played in 10 games for the Under-18 team and put up 8 points. Most impressively in 2020-21 was being named to the American roster for the 2021 World U-18 Championships. Making it at all as an underage player is an achievement. Putting up five assists in five games and being named as one of the three best players on the team meant he did more than just make the roster.
Then came this past season. Hutson was with the U-18 team full-time and he just kept making the boxscore over and over and over. With the U-17s in 2020-21, Hutson finished fourth in scoring among defensemen. With the U-18s in 2021-22, Hutson put up a staggering 10 goals and 53 assists in 60 games. He finished tied for sixth in total points on the team, finished first among defensemen, and put up 30 more points than his closest defender, Seamus Casey. Hutson did not just rack up games in exhibitions against college and select teams. In 27 USHL games, he put up 6 goals and 32 assists. That was the most among the USNTDP defensemen that season, more than double the next highest-producing defender (Ryan Chesley, 15 points in 26 games), and fifth on the team in scoring in total. Then there was this year’s World U-18 Championships. Hutson was a star in this tournament. He put up eight assists in six games to help the Americans get to the Gold Medal finals. The Americans did not win it, but Hutson received plenty of praise. He was named as a top three player on the team for a second straight tournament; he was named to the tournament’s all star team (one of two Americans, Logan Cooley was the other); and he was named as the best defenseman in the tournament. Even though Mattias Havelid put up more points and Tomas Hamara was crucial for the Czechs, those in charge picked Hutson. The list of past winners are not all total stars, but they include players such as Adam Fox, Miro Heiskanen, and Adam Boqvist. It is not bad company to be in. Hutson clearly had an excellent 2021-22 campaign.
The production alone should command your attention despite his size. Check out the draft-eligible defensemen at Pick224. Out of his 63 total points with the USNTDP, 37 were primary points - goals and first assists. This meant he had a primary point per game rate of 0.625 in non-USHL games and 0.629 in USHL games. This is an incredible rate of production for defensemen. So much so that there is only one defenseman with a higher rate of primary points: Jérémy Langlois of Cape Breton. Who may possibly get drafted given his 60th place ranking by NHL Central Scouting Services. Hutson’s rate of production is a higher rate than other defensemen expected to go in the first round, such as Simon Nemec, David Jiricek, Pavel Mintyukov, and Denton Mateychuk among others. While points for a defensemen are not always indicative of value, it is certainly not nothing. Not in how Hutson dwarfed his own teammates and most of the defenders in this draft class. Especially in picking up assists seeing that he scored 10 total goals out of 98 total shots.
I am a little concerned about what’s next for Hutson. He did commit to Boston University. That is a traditionally good program in college. They have Dominick Fensore, a small USNTDP-based defenseman who just had a fantastic junior season. (He was picked in the third round by Carolina in 2021). They will know what to do with Hutson. My concern is that per Elite Prospects and College Commitments, Hutson is due to start playing for the Terriers in the 2023-24 season. Which is in two seasons. I am not sure what he is actually going to do next season. Maybe that is an oversight and he can start college next season (this interview with Guy Flaming suggests that’s the plan)? Maybe he will play another season of USHL hockey? Maybe he will forego college and go play in a Canadian major junior hockey league? If so, Kingston of the OHL has his rights. He is surely going to play somewhere. I wish it was clearer as to what that is.
Between his glow up in production between the U-17s and U-18s teams and his World U-18 tournament performances, there is clearly a talented player in Lane Hutson. He is just a relatively tiny player at a position where size carries some value, legitimate and perceived. There is a little hope; he apparently grew two inches from 2021 as this Steven Ellis article in May 2021 noted he was 5’6” then. If he can grow another one or two more inches, his likelihood of making it will increase.
Where is Lane Hutson Ranked?
As much as there is plenty of praise for the diminutive defender, the rankings suggest he is firmly a second round candidate.
- #25 North American skaters - NHL Central Scouting (Final Ranking)
- #49 - Elite Prospects (May, #49 is from his profile page)
- #39 - Craig Button, TSN (May 10, 2022 ranking)
- #27 - FC Hockey (Spring ranking)
- #29 - Smaht Scouting (Final ranking)
- #34 - Will Scouch (April ranking)
- #44 - Recruit Scouting (March ranking)
- #43 - Draft Prospects Hockey (April ranking)
- #40 - The Hockey Writers - Peter Baracchini (May 7, 2022 ranking)
- #45 - The Hockey Writers - Matthew Zator (April 5, 2022 ranking)
- #43 - The Hockey Writers - Andrew Forbes (March 22, 2022 ranking)
Only two services were bold enough to put Hutson within the first round: FC Hockey and Smaht Scouting. Even then, both are late enough rankings in the first round that a slip to the second day would not be a shock. I was surprised to see that everyone is fairly in close range of each other on Hutson. Sure, Will Scouch, Smaht Scouting, and FC Hockey are higher on him. As possibly NHL Central Scouting as a 25th ranking among North American skaters would put Hutson at the end of the first round or early part of the second round pending how many European players are picked. Yet, no one in this group I pulled has placed Hutson on the verge of the end of the second round. Elite Prospects ranked them the least and 49th is around midway through the second round. Whether he will go in the second round, well, that is up to how teams see him.
What Others Say About Lane Hutson
The best profile about Lane Hutson comes from Scott Wheeler at The Athletic ($). Back in March, Wheeler put together this profile of the player. He spoke to Hutson himself and the USNTDP coaching staff about him. The real reason to check it out is Wheeler’s assessment of the player. He breaks down his skating, his offensive game, and his defensive game. Wheeler has a lot - and I mean a lot - of video clips to back up his observations and evaluations of the player. Here is a high level summary of what Wheeler found:
- Hutson’s movement on and off the puck is a strength. He is able to move quickly, efficiently, and disguise his movement to throw off opposing players.
- Hutson’s passing is also a strength as he is capable of identifying options among his teammates and hit them with a pass.
- Hutson also sees the game very well, even under pressure with the puck. It elevates what he does with the puck.
- The lack of size is a definite issue. Not just in close-quarters situations where physical play is paramount, but if he gets beat, then his lack of length hinders any recovery on defense. He can catch up, yet, again, the lack of a long reach means he has to catch up more than others - which is not always possible in some cases.
- Hutson uses his skating and movement to stick to players on defense.
- Just as he is good at reading plays on offense, he is good at reading plays on defense to position himself to make stops or disrupt the opposition.
Please go read it if you have The Athletic ($).
If you do not have The Athletic and want a profile that does into a player’s mechanics, then go read Josh Tessler’s profile of Hutson at Smaht Scouting. Written in mid-February, Tessler has plenty of good things to say about Hutson’s skating, passing, and what Tessler calls being a “problem solver.” First, this part about the skating by Tessler stuck out to me:
Hutson has excellent mobility and its a credit to his crossovers and edge work. He can generate open space for himself and shake off attackers with his mobility. Good outside edges when doubling back in the neutral zone as he had ran into traffic the neutral zone and looks to double back to find an open teammate on the opposite side. Good inside edges to pivot out of pressure along the blue line. Hutson does a good job of leaning on his edges when turning his body to react to puck movement. By leaning on his edges, it allows him to retain speed and that makes him far more likely to generate open ice for himself.
Other than his speed in skating backwards, Tessler’s assessment of Hutson’s skating was positive as a whole. Skating is not going to be an issue for this young player. The section I quoted really highlights something I think that is valuable for a defenseman that tends to get overlooked. Being able to skate into and out of situations can only help a defender do his job regardless of how much or how little he brings to the table physically. Being able to get past opposing players or catching up in either zone
Second, this part that Tessler wrote about Hutson’s offensive game clearly explains why Hutson should be seen as a dynamic offensive defenseman:
Hutson is a quality puck distributor in the offensive zone. He has soft and quick hands. If he sees a gap and a teammate at net-front, he will exploit it and wire a crisp pass to his teammate. But, that doesn’t mean that he just sits back at the blue line and waits for opportunities. As mentioned above, he jumps up and skates down low. Hutson will skate up from the point to behind the net and try passes to medium danger or net front. If he is skating and sees that he has a passing option without going behind the red line, he doesn’t overthink it. He takes that lane and takes it quickly. That has led to quality cross ice feeds to open forwards.
I highly doubt the Devils will play the same way they do when Hutson eventually gets to pro hockey. I do think it is likely that the NHL game will favor defenders who can activate and get involved. That is not just something the Devils did - sometimes to a fault - but several other teams have given green lights to defenseman that otherwise would be told to stay at the blueline at all times 10-15 years ago. And it adds another dimension to a team’s attack. Tessler’s profile notes that Hutson is more than comfortable with doing that. Combined with how well he skates and handles the puck, it makes him a threat in a team’s attack. This helps explain how he racked up a staggering 53 assists with the USNTDP this past season.
This is not to say that Hutson could use further refinements to his game. Tessler does note that he does need to be careful about going in too deep on offense as that could leave his defensive partner in trouble. Something Devils fans know all too well from two seasons of Lindy Ruff-coached hockey. Also: He suggests that Hutson’s shot could use some work. That all stated, Tessler has plenty of praise for how Huston thinks in the game-situations. This quote comes from a Transitional Play section, so the context is about Hutson on zone exits, zone entries, and movement through the neutral zone:
Hutson has the problem solver gene in his DNA. He won’t force himself into pressure in which he can’t dodge. So, he uses good pivots and turns that allows him to double back in the neutral zone when he runs into traffic. He will double back and completes a zone exit pass from the defensive zone to his winger on the far side. Hutson passes to far side as most of the attention had been turned to him. In situations in which one forward is being trapped by multiple attackers, he will pivot and try the other winger on the other side of the offensive zone blue line.
Wheeler also referred to this when discussing Hutson’s offensive skillset. Tessler identified the same thing when it comes to making plays to move the puck forward for his team. This reinforces his vision as an asset as it is not just for offensive situations only. It also allows Hutson to be more effective in his own end despite giving up so much height, weight, and reach to other players. Credit to Tessler for noting this in the way that he did.
Credit also to Tessler for noting some other flaws in Hutson’s game. While Tessler did not go much into Hutson’s lack of size, he did note that Hutson also needs work in defending 2-on-1 situations as well as handling significantly physical and/or large forecheckers. While most opponents have been and will be bigger than Hutson, those who have been notably bigger this season have caused some issues. Those are aspects to work on, certainly. I appreciate that Tessler did not frame it as Huston being this otherwise well-rounded-really-well prospect aside from the size.
It should be noted that Tessler did refer to an exhibition with Lake Superior State as an example. Against players within his own age group, Hutson may be more capable of handling contact than one may think. At Dobber Prospects, Alexander Annun had this observation after a USNTDP game against Youngstown in the USHL. Hutson played over 25 minutes in the game and while he was held pointless, Annun was impressed with how he performed:
The most impressive part of his game in this one was his work on the defensive side of the puck as he won 15/17 puck battles – good for 88% in this tilt – and used his momentum to throw his weight around and knock people off the puck. He looked physically up to the task in this game and did not get pushed around by the larger opposition, and his skating ability made it impossible for them to get around him as he mimicked their every move. Hutson was a suffocating defensive presence in this one as he made good defensive reads, broke up several passes with his stick, and did well to get his body in the lanes to prevent pucks from getting through. He also led all skaters with 12 takeaways in the contest, showing his ability to really step up as a defensively responsible player with a couple of faces missing from the lineup.
It is a report from one game. However, it is evidence that Hutson is at least capable of locking down opponents. That he can win pucks, utilize his size despite giving up plenty in inches and pounds, and do so for over 25 minutes. It remains to be seen if he can do that at the next level, but we will get an answer to that in time.
We did get some answers at the World U-18 Championships about Hutson’s skill set. He was named to the tournament’s All-Star team as well as the tournament’s best defenseman. Over at FC Hockey, Derek Neumeier and Douglas Larson raved about how Hutson performed:
“I just love watching Lane Hutson play. He’s so smart and he never takes his foot off the gas. I don’t think he’ll become the best NHL defenseman out of the ones who played in this tournament, but I thought he was the best one there and then. He was an instrumental reason why the Americans tilted the ice in their favour all tournament.” — Neumeier
“While my decision for the forward who most impressed me was a difficult one, the most impressive defenceman was an easy one for me in selecting Hutson. Easily the most thrilling, dynamic defender I watched this tournament. He was exceptional in providing offense from the back end and made some incredible plays. While the knock on him is his small stature — I couldn’t care less how tall he is — the kid can flat out play. He made a few mistakes defensively, but overall held his own. Hutson was a crucial part in the United States silver medal and his draft stock should see a bump with his play the last couple of weeks.” — Larson
This is not a big surprise since the tournament organizers agreed. However, it is a positive to see reinforcement of Hutson’s excellent time in Germany. These tournaments may be short but they are an opportunity to see how a player does in important games and against largely unfamiliar competition. Hutson clearly shined.
A Little Video
There are two videos of note about Hutson - who wears #23 for the USNTDP - aside from the many, many clips from Wheeler’s profile. The first shows Hutson at his best. A shift where he basically is in charge of an attack for about 45 seconds against the University of Alaska-Fairbanks:
While it is just one clip, you can see plenty of what one reads about Hutson. You can see the mobility. You can see Hutson take some contact and keep going. You can see him surveying for options; which were not always there. The other USNTDP forwards did not cover themselves in glory on this play. You can see him go deep, circle around, go down the opposite side, end up behind the net, and set up a great shot for Ryan Chesley - his defensive partner who also went really deep. You can see after that shot, he fills in the space Chesley would occupy - his off-hand - and unload a slapshot that ended the shift. Without it being a scoring play, this was excellent from #23 and shows the various skills that makes scouts and hobbyists champion his selection.
The second video is much longer. It is a shift-by-shift video of Hutson when the USNTDP took on the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL. The game ended up being a 3-2 overtime loss to the USNTDP on April 1. The USNTDP did not have a single power play in the game and Hutson ended up pointless. It is not the most ideal game for him, but it does show what a game is like when Hutson is not in a situation to excel.
The whole game was not exactly Hutson’s best either. There were some of those shifts where a larger player did beat Hutson and he could not catch up. And where the Gamblers outnumbered him on an entry and while he picked the right person, that person was going downhill (so to speak) and was able to set up a shot past Hutson. There were other shifts where Hutson was able to play his way out of trouble. Such as when Green Bay sent two forecheckers in on him, Hutson was able to pivot, curl, turn, and pitchfork a puck for a zone exit. Such as when Green Bay had a power play, Hutson was part of the penalty killing efforts. You can see the moments where the lack of size is an issue. You can see much more that he is a highly-mobile player who is rarely still as he anticipates when an opportunity to get involved happens. In a game where the opportunities for Hutson (and the USNTDP) was not there to shine, you can still get a sense of what he can do and that he does stand out among the other prospects.
An Opinion of Sorts
There is a lot to like about Lane Hutson. However, the biggest flaw is his small frame. It may be such a common refrain, but it is entirely true. Given that he plays a position where having a sizeable frame is helpful, it cannot be ignored. I will argue and believe that positioning and quick decision making is more important than just being bigger and/or beefier than an opponent when it comes to playing defense. However, there are common situations that all defensemen are in where size plays a role. Hutson will struggle with that. Even if he does get a little heavier and, somehow, gets a bit taller, it will be a challenge. Simple as. Unless Hutson is willing to play wing - which would lessen some of the issues with respect to his size - whoever picks him is going to have to accept that limitation.
However, it is not something that will keep Hutson from having his name called out in Montreal in July. If Dominick Fensore can get picked, then I have confidence Hutson will be. Especially with what he did with the USNTDP this season. The question is not going to be if Hutson gets drafted. The questions are when and who will pick him. Whoever picks him will need to make sure that all of the issues and potential areas of growth in his game are met. Right or wrong, that is usually what is asked for a small player. A big player can (sort of) get away with not being a particularly fast player or being more limited in skill at the pro level. Small players like Hutson cannot. Whoever picks him needs to on point with guiding the player’s growth as they enter college and continually through to the pro level. Not every organization has the staff, the talent, or - most of all - the desire to do that for a player like Hutson. Who is willing to take a chance on him will drive whether he gets selected in the second round or if he falls further on the basis of his size.
All things being equal, I think this is a player the Devils should take a chance on in the second round. The previous player I profiled was Jack Hughes, a player thought to have a “high floor” with his potential. He may not be a significant player on a team, but it is likely he will be a pro. There is more risk as to whether Hutson makes it in pro hockey, but if he does, then he could end up being an offensive-minded defenseman that can contribute at the next level. Maybe not as a top-minute defender, but a solid career can be had as a #4 - #6 defenseman who has the skillset tailor made for a power play.
Tom Fitzgerald has stated he does not want all players of the same type. And after Luke Hughes and Reilly Walsh, the Devils are short on defensemen in the prospect pool with a notable offensive game. Taking the man Wheeler called a “unicorn” would definitely be a departure from the norm. It would be totally justifiable between the season he just had, the fact that he is very mobile and quick on his feet, and the fact he is able to read and react game situations well. The latter two are certainly projectable to the next level and will serve him well regardless of what role he is asked to play. This is a guy who was named the top defenseman in a tournament featuring many of this year’s top prospects. Let us not over think this; Hutson clearly has game. The idea is to pick players who have enough game now to bring it to the pro level one day. Outside of the size issue, there is not much of a reason to pass on Hutson - especially when Day 2 begins on July 8.
That stated, I am not confident that Fitzgerald and the Devils would look Hutson’s way at 37th overall or even beyond it. Since Paul Castron became Director of Amateur Scouting, you can count on one hand the number of sub-six foot defensemen drafted by the Devils. They were Jeremy Davies (7th round in 2016, 5’11”), Ty Smith (1st round in 2018, 5’11”), and Ethan Edwards (4th round in 2020, 5’11”). This is the same team that picked Shakir Mukhamadullin in 2020 and Chase Stillman in 2021 over other available talents based in part on their size and perceived physical play. Many want the Devils to become beefier and heavier. Hutson, who would not be playing for multiple years anyway, would not help with either. I think the Devils should have him on their draft board because talented players like him are few and far between beyond the first round of a draft class. Especially ones that would fill a hole in the prospect pool. But the Devils, like a lot of teams, do place some value on size and the defenseman position does value it. Hutson does not have that and so I am not expecting the Devils to call his name on July 8.
I will reiterate that I think they should at least consider him. He has the skillset and the mind for the game that can help him contribute at higher level of hockey. And the Devils really should take their chance at him if he does fall to the third round. By that point, it would be a challenge to just keep overlooking him. If not the Devils, then someone will take a chance and hope to get rewarded for their risk. Maybe it will be Carolina, who picked Fensore at 90th overall (third round) in 2019. While he is not my preferred, hopeful choice in the second round (I will preview that player next), I would rather see Hutson get picked over someone “safer” like Jack Hughes or a defender who is more limited in his skillset but has a desired frame.
Still, I acknowledge that it will be a tall order for this potential short king to claim his dominion in the NHL. In the meantime, I would love to know your take on the other Lane Hutson in the comments. What do you think of Hutson’s 2021-22 campaign with the USNTDP? What did you like reading about him? What did you not like reading about him? How do you rate him among the other non-first round defensemen in this draft? Would you want the Devils to take him? If so, when? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Hutson in the comments. Thank you for reading.