Not many teams can lose their No. 1 defenseman and replace him with an underaged prospect and come out with favorable success.
That's the luxury the USNTDP has with their strong U-17 and U-18 clubs.
With potential top five NHL draft pick Luke Hughes out of the lineup with an injury, Lane Hutson was called up from the U-17 USNTDP team to fill the spot. One of the youngest kids in the tournament, Hutson played well enough with the U-18 team earlier this season, recording six points in seven games while generally be an impactful player each night.
His offensive talents have been well-documented – he was fourth in tournament scoring at the 40-team World Selects Invitational prior to playing junior hockey and he had some bright moments with USA's Youth Olympic team in 2020. Now he's on the biggest stage of his career, and with five points in four games – as well as the shootout winner against the Czech Republic on Thursday – there's so much to like about the Chicago, Il. native.
The Boston University commit has been leaned on heavily for the United States so far. While he's been on the team's third-pairing for the entirety of the event so far, Hutson has played on the power play in place of Hughes and has filled in quite nicely.
"He has some very special attributes as a player," USA coach Dan Muse said earlier in the tournament. "He has a lot of confidence. He's great on his edges, the way he can break the puck out, the way he can move the puck up the ice."
On the rush, Hutson has acted as the fourth forward on occasion. His offensive-minded play has worked well against other team's bottom-six lines, so he's getting favorable matchups. That's partly because USA has solid defensive depth, but he never seems to get razzled and can handle the pressure of playing late in games – or scoring shootout winners.
Committed to Boston University, Hutson is so smooth with his starts and stops and he can make smart plays at high speed. There's nothing outstanding about his wrist or slap shot, but he can dangle the puck like a skilled winger and his teammates aren't afraid to get the puck back to him often because Hutson will typically make it work.
Now, for the elephant in the room: he's 5-foot-6 and listed at 165 pounds, and you can tell players bully him around from time to time on the ice. There's still time for him to grow (he's just 17, after all) and he'll need to add some bulk to really be taken more seriously on draft weekend in 2022. But scouts love his game right now.
"He's really tiny, and it shows sometimes in aggressive battles in front of the net and the along the boards, but it's often you'll leave a game with him in your mind as the best player that night," an American scout said. "If he was another 5-6 inches taller and still had his speed and skill set, we'd be talking top 10 with him."
There's still a ton of time left in Hutson's junior hockey development and the size could come, too. If Huston has made this much of an impact with the U-18 national team, how far along will he be after leading the team again next year in league play?
"The more I watch, I can’t get over how dynamic he is," said Chris Peters, the creator of Hockey Sense and the color commentator for Group B games in Frisco for HockeyTV. "He looks like a little kid, but he plays big. His footwork and hand skills are especially higher end. He doesn’t have amazing speed, but he’s slippery. His ability to change direction and maintain speed is unique.
"To see him become such a force in the offensive zone in this tournament has been one of the highlights so far. So he’s exceeded my expectations in this tournament. He can be dominant if he grows a little more and gains a step."
Muse hasn't hesitated to put out his younger U-17 players at a tournament for older talent. Many of them spent considerable time playing a year up anyways so it's not like they're out of place. That especially goes for Hutson, who keeps getting thrown into important situations with such little difficulty. USA can only hope Hutson plays like he did against Russia or Finland in the medal round because if they do, the United States could do some damage.
And don't forget: he'll be back next year too. A year older, a year further in his development. Like him now? You'll love him in the future.