New Mexico captain joins teammate as committed player to Augustana
Defenseman Jeff Hutchinson is in his third season with the Ice Wolves and has added another dimension to his game this season.
When Jeff Hutchinson started to receive recruiting contact from Augustana University hockey coach Garrett Raboin, he ended up having a teammate in his ear as well.
Hutchinson is in his third season of junior hockey playing for the New Mexico Ice Wolves of the North American Hockey League. One of his teammates for the third season in a row is Will Howard.
Howard verbally committed to play for the Vikings in October.
"He had heard I'd talked to coach and he would call me every now and then and say, 'So what are you thinking?'" Hutchinson said, laughing. "He was kind of in my ear the whole time.
"It's real cool to just kind of know someone going in there."
That is because Hutchinson, the Ice Wolves captain, verbally committed to play for the Vikings on March 2. Besides Howard's arm twisting, there were a few factors that went into Hutchinson's decision to commit to Augustana, which will play its first season in 2023-24.
"First off, seeing some of the pictures of the facilities and what it's going to be like — it's just beautiful," Hutchinson said. "It looks like an amazing setup. I think with them having their inaugural season, it gives you the opportunity that — if you work real hard — you can get some playing time in real early. That was real enticing, too."
The final steel trusses are nearly in place 🏗️— Augustana Men's Hockey (@AugieMHockey) March 7, 2023
View the camera ➡️ https://t.co/oalsDDNTHg#BuildingChampions | #AUHockey pic.twitter.com/3qHD6hVyif
A physical defenseman
So what type of player should the Vikings expect to see when he joins the team in the fall?
"I think I'm pretty solid defensively," said Hutchinson, who is second on his team in assists (25), leads the team in penalty minutes (79) and is a plus-6 in 46 games. "I like to try to lock things down. I like to play real physical when I can.
"I'm trying to add the offensive side, but first and foremost, I'm trying to keep pucks out of our net."
Hutchinson is leading the Ice Wolves in ice time (22 minutes, 8 seconds per game), is winning 59% of his puck battles and averaging 2.5 hits-per-game.
"He leaves it all on the ice," New Mexico head coach/general manager Phil Fox said of Hutchinson, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. "Jeff Hutchinson is, obviously, not the flashiest player, but his presence is always made known whether it's a big hit, he can hammer a puck.
"He competes hard every single day. It starts in practice. He brings that compete every day. He just plays every shift like it's his last. I knew he was going to be our captain. He just gets the respect from the (locker) room. The way he plays, guys look up to him. When you play that way, you're going to have a lot of people follow you.
"They want to be led by somebody like Jeff, who leads the right way on the ice and off the ice. He cares a lot about his teammates. He shows that he loves those guys and he wants success for them. He's the first guy to drop the mitts for somebody who has been taken advantage of."
Expanding his game
The 20-year-old has shown improvement each season in juniors. In 2020-21, he had seven points, 16 penalty minutes and was a minus-1 in 41 games. Last season, he had 13 points, 91 penalty minutes and was a plus-1 in 53 games.
After last season, he said that he focused on working on his footwork to prepare for this season.
"I tried to work on my skating over the offseason, trying to get better feet," Hutchinson said. "That's a big thing for a 'D' man — you've got to have good footwork. I'm trying to work on that and it's kind of helped me get up in plays and I'm able to stay with some of those shifty guys in the corners."
His improved skating and footwork have led to more ice time and production. He is playing on a power-play unit and also kills penalties.
"Something that we've told Jeff after every year is that you've got to take a step in the (offensive) direction," Fox said. "To his credit, he's done just that in his 20-year-old year. He's one of the guys we're putting on a power play right now and the points are speaking to his work ethic.
"His output offensively is what he's put into this game to get better. 'If I'm on the power play, I've got to be good on the power play. I can't just be on there because I'm a 20-year-old.' That's not how I operate. He's done a good job of stepping up and being one of our leaders offensively from the back end."
Heading back to the Midwest
Hutchinson grew up in St. Louis and his father played roller hockey growing up.
"He wanted to get me into hockey," Hutchinson said of his dad. "I was like 3 and my mom and it was Christmas break and my mom was bored. She said, 'Let's go skating. It's something to do.' I kind of just picked it up quick and was kind of a natural at it.
"Then they said, 'We'll try him in hockey,' and it went from there."
🚨 COMMITMENT ALERT 🚨 Congrats to defensemen and captain Jeff Hutchinson on his commitment to Augustana University to play NCAA D1 hockey next year! #HowlAsOne pic.twitter.com/7ozz9DNXjr— New Mexico Ice Wolves (@NMIceWolves) March 2, 2023
Hutchinson played for St. Louis Blues AAA teams growing up before he signed a tender to play for the Bismarck Bobcats in the NAHL. He played five games for the Bobcats in 2019-20 and three games for them in 2020-21 before getting traded to New Mexico.
In the fall, he will be headed back to the Midwest to begin his college career to the delight of his parents.
"They're thrilled," Hutchinson said of his parents. "At the end of youth (hockey) and into juniors, you say, 'Aw, college hockey — that's where I want to be.' To be able to achieve that with them rooting me on, it's special."
And Hutchinson said he is looking forward to being a part of something new as part of the first Vikings team.
"I like the way that coach Raboin is looking to build a winning culture," he said. "When I talked to him, it sounds like he's bringing in the right guys to get the job done in the early years."
Fox said that the Vikings are getting a couple of special players when Howard and Hutchinson arrive. Howard leads the NAHL in goals (31), is second in game-winning goals (7), is tied for third in power-play goals (11) and tied for 14th in points (47).
"Jeff is a super smart kid, great grades, over a 30 on his ACT," Fox said. "I told Rabs that he is a culture guy that you want to start a program with. The same with William Howard. You couldn't pick two better players to start a program with in my opinion. These two kids are foundation — they know where they came from and it hasn't changed them. They continue to work, work, work. At that age, that's the one thing you've got to have."