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Scouting the newbies

by Thomas Drance / Vancouver Canucks
You don’t have to go too far back to find the last season in which the Vancouver Canucks had three impact rookies on the roster.

Just last year Ronalds Kenins, Linden Vey and Bo Horvat all played important depth roles on a team that finished with 100 points. And back in 2007-08, all of Alex Edler, Luc Bourdon and Mason Raymond appeared in at least 20 games with the team.

What’s special about the rookie trio of Ben Hutton, Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen then isn’t their place in Canucks history. It’s the hype out of gate.

Let’s dive into their statistics and the history of comparable players, in advance of their regular season debuts this week.

Ben Hutton

Ben Hutton put together a historic sophomore campaign with the University of Maine Black Bears back in 2013-14, but his numbers slipped as the team around him struggled in 2014-15. This dip in his production is perhaps partly why his emergence as an NHL-ready defenseman over the past few weeks caught so many observers by surprise.

As a sophomore player, Hutton managed an astounding 15 goals in 35 games, a total that led all NCAA blue liners. This past season his goal totals regressed from 15 to nine, but that was driven almost entirely by a lack of production on the power play – as Hutton went from nine power-play goals in 2013-14, to just two in 2014-15.

Maine’s team quality diminished between Hutton’s sophomore and junior season and it showed on the power play, where the Black Bears scored five fewer goals as a team. Meanwhile Hutton’s shooting percentage – something players, and particularly defenseman, aren’t believed to be directly responsible for – dipped from nearly 13 percent in 2013-14 to under eight percent in 2014-15.

So Hutton’s stagnating goal totals probably tell you more about the quality of his team and about the bounces, then they tell you about his overall skill set and abilities as an offensive player.

Though Hutton’s goal totals declined in 2014-15, his ability to generate shots remained high end. In his junior year, his final year of NCAA hockey before turning pro, Hutton managed 2.95 shots per game – good for eighth among all NCAA players (he was second in the nation in this category during his sophomore campaign). He continued to generate shots at a good clip in his short stint in the American League, managing a shot per game (and one goal) in four appearances with the Utica Comets.

Historically speaking players of a similar build to Hutton who recorded points at a comparable rate in their junior NCAA campaign have only gone on to play 200 or more NHL games 7 percent of the time. That’s a small number, but if you look at players of a similar build and age who received a short look in the AHL, that number balloons to 30 percent.

Notable NHLers who are of a similar height and who produced like Hutton did as a 21-year-old junior in college include: Willie Mitchell, Eric Gryba and Nate Prosser.

Jared McCann

In both of his draft eligible and draft-plus one campaigns McCann, 19, was the top-line matchup centre for one of the best teams in the Ontario Hockey League: the Soo Greyhounds.

The Greyhounds have been a juggernaut for several years and McCann’s mature defensive game and ability to produce offense against the best players in Ontario has been a major reason why. In each of the past two seasons, with McCann playing a top-line role, the Greyhounds have been a top-10 possession team, according to the estimates found at CHLstats.com.

In addition to playing a sturdy two-way game, McCann finished second among Greyounds forwards in goals per game last season. Among all 18-year-old forwards in the OHL, McCann was a top-10 goal scorer and finished with the fifth most total points.

Among players of a similar build who produced points at a comparable rate to McCann in their age-18 campaign in the OHL, 34.5 percent went on to play at least 200 NHL games. Notable NHLers who are of a similar height and produced like McCann did as an 18-year-old in the OHL include: Dave Bolland, Mike Fisher and Brad Boyes.

Jake Virtanen

Coming off of shoulder surgery and playing a secondary role on a very good Calgary Hitmen team, Jake Virtanen’s offensive production sagged in his age-18 WHL season.

In 2013-14 Virtanen led all first-time draft eligible CHL skaters in even-strength goals, and he continued to find the back of the net at a good clip at 5-on-5 last season. Among 18-year-olds in the WHL, Virtanen’s even-strength goals per game rate was good for 15th and he was the 11th best even-strength point producer among his age group.

Among players of a similar build who produced points at a comparable rate to Virtanen in their age-18 WHL seasons, 13.2 percent went on to play at least 200 games in the NHL. Notable NHLers who are a similar height and produced at a similar rate as Virtanen did in the WHL include: Troy Brouwer, Martin Erat, and Virtanen’s new Canucks teammate Adam Cracknell.

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