First Look: Canucks Pay Too Much for Brandon Sutter

Yesterday, the Toronto Blue Jays added a big, recognizable name to their roster in Troy Tulowitzki. They gave up a significant piece and some prospects and also took on a huge financial commitment to fill a need that didn’t really exist on their roster, but they still got much better, even though the path they took was somewhat unconventional.

When the Canucks stepped to the plate today to take a swing at a trade of their own, they didn’t perform nearly as well. As I’m sure you all know by now, Jim Benning dealt Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening, and Anaheim’s 2nd round pick in 2016 (acquired in the Kevin Bieksa deal) to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for 26-year old centre Brandon Sutter and a conditional 3rd round draft pick in 2016.

To say this deal is a head-scratcher is definitely being generous to the Canucks, but it’s a head-scratcher for sure. Nick Bonino was far from a foundational piece for the Canucks and he had many, many warts as a hockey player, but it’s not clear that Sutter offers a significant upgrade in terms of actual on-ice impact. Add in the fact that Benning also dealt away arguably Vancouver’s best defensive prospect as well as traded down in the upcoming entry draft, and you get the makings of a deal that could look like an absolute fleecing a handful of years down the road.

For a closer look at the newest Canuck, join us after the jump.

For this article, we’ll focus on just the Bonino-versus-Sutter comparison since, after researching what I’m about to present in this space, I think they’re close enough that it’s a legitimate debate to which player is better. If they’re even close, we can just write off the Clendening-and-a-second for a third round pick as Benning burning assets and damaging Vancouver’s potential long-term health, and solidifying that the organization is truly trying to win now, rather than stealthily tanking for better draft picks and merely paying lip service to the prospect of making the playoffs to pacify the more casual portions of the fanbase.

Granted, this isn’t really something you can just “write off” as it’s the part of the trade that takes it from “okay, that’s an interesting swap” to “you should be legitimately frightened for this franchise’s future.” But, again, we’re here to focus on what Vancouver is losing in Nick Bonino compared to what they’re gaining with Brandon Sutter, so we’ll save the macro-level criticisms of organizational strategy and direction for another day.

With that out of the way, let’s get started:

The impact of losing Nick Bonino

Story 1

Dashboard 2

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To be honest, I was never really a huge fan of Nick Bonino’s. Coming in to last season, his offensive track record was iffy at best, and he didn’t particularly make a significant impact in many other areas of the ice. His defensive play isn’t a strength, but a pair of solid play-driving wingers in Chris Higgins and Alex Burrows helped him cover for some of his shortcomings and turn in a solid season playing a bit over his head on an NHL second line.

Per minute of 5-on-5 ice time, Bonino proved to be an excellent point producer. He finished 4th on Vancouver with 31 even strength points – just two behind both Henrik Sedin and Radim Vrbata – and was Vancouver’s most efficient even strength scorer with 2.04 Pts/60. Though Bonino’s season seemed to be marred with inconsistency, the fact still remains that he put points up like an above average 1st line NHLer at 5-on-5, and provided enormous offensive value especially considering his bargain 3-year, $1.9 million contract.

But, being slow, small, and prone to lapses off the puck, Bonino has struggled with making a solid defensive impact throughout his career, as evidenced by that ugly CA/60 rating on his HERO chart above. He also tended to give up scoring chances at a pretty troubling rate, ranking 319th out of 424 forwards to play at least 250 5v5 minutes last season in ScoringChancesAgainst per 60. Even so, Bonino’s strong offensive contributions balanced this out, as he was Vancouver’s best offensive chance producer at 5v5, leading to a slight net positive impact. 

Despite strong offensive play at 5v5, Bonino was never really able to make the second powerplay unit click at any point last year. Of the 195 forwards to see 100 minutes at 5v4 last season, Bonino had the 22nd worst impact in shot production relative to his teammates, a poor overall on-ice shot rate, a fairly paltry chance rate, and an almost league worst 2.63 GFOn/60 – a far cry from the success he saw playing on the Ducks’ vaunted first PP unit the season prior.

Interestingly enough, Bonino’s penalty kill contributions were much stronger, which is the exact opposite of what you’d expect given the type of player he is at 5v5. Bonino was a top-30 player last year in shot prevention while down a man, and a major contributor to Vancouver’s strong PK. The Canucks were better with both Richardson’s unit or the Matthias/Hansen duo on the ice in terms of shot suppression, but being a little worse than a collection of elite guys is much more impressive than being a little worse than a collection of guys who are just okay.

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If you’re nitpicking, Bonino allowed chances against at a slightly below league average rate while killing penalties, but this was by no means a major weakness of Bonino’s at any point last season.

Bonino was in the black for goal, chance, shot, and shot attempt differentials in his one season with the Canucks, so given his contract and the expectations placed upon him, you can’t really complain about his performance at 5v5. Yeah he was a flawed player, but he wasn’t being compensated like a flawless one, and his net impact was still positive. You ideally want more from a guy playing 2C minutes, but a positive impact is a positive impact, and it’s tough to find one for just $1.9 million per season.

His work on the powerplay left a lot to be desired, but he exceeded expectations by being an excellent contributor to what was an elite penalty killing unit until Brad Richardson went down, and a solid one once asked to step up and fill a role he was ill-suited for with Richardson out of the lineup. All in all, Bonino was likely ill-suited for an NHL 2C role even if he proved capable thanks to questionable defensive abilities. Still, he proved to be a legitimately strong and cost controlled middle-6 NHL centreman, likely best suited for a sheltered scoring role on a team that can afford to play him down the depth chart – a high-end complimentary piece on a Cup contender. The Canucks are not better off without him.

The impact of adding Brandon Sutter

Story 1 (1)

Dashboard 2 (1)

Stylistically, Brandon Sutter is quite the departure from Nick Bonino. Sutter is huge, can skate like the wind, and is physical but not overly so. In many ways, he’s a similar type of player as the recently departed Shawn Matthias. Still, with a consistently defensive slant to his deployment and a track record of solid faceoff ability, Sutter is viewed as a shutdown ace that will help the Canucks match up to other teams in the evolving Pacific division.

Unfortunately, we have good reason to believe that this perception is not really accurate. Sutter has routinely been slaughtered by shot and shot attempt metrics, performing in a similar manner to a below average 4th line C during his time in Pittsburgh, according to his HERO chart above. I don’t believe this is entirely accurate of Sutter’s abilities however, since his teammates are likely with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin when away from him. Crosby and Malkin aren’t fantastic possession drivers (their biggest strengths as hockey players are both the incredibly rare ability to convert possession into goals at unmatched rates) so this isn’t as large an effect as you would think, but it’s still something we have to consider.

Trying to account for teammates and usage still doesn’t paint a great picture of Sutter’s abilities, as he’s traditionally been a well below average player by dCorsi, and bounced between “bad” and “horrendous” by Corsi Plus-Minus (CPM) as well.

Player History

Most of Sutter’s gaudy On-Ice Goals Against numbers aren’t really driven by stopping the opponent from generating fewer shots, but rather Marc-Andre Fleury and company out performing Henrik Lundqvist and Tuukka Rask while Sutter has been on the ice. Shot quality has long been a contentious and divisive topic, and while I believe it has to exist and make an impact on some level, Sutter’s results are unlikely to be the result of strong defensive play and a unique ability to limit scoring chances, seeing as his ability to limit chances against still lags behind his GA numbers.

Sutter is just outside the top 3rd of the NHL limiting scoring chances against since 2012-13, but thanks to an elevated on-ice save percentage, has seen his goals against limited to a number that makes his defensive impact look greater than what it is. He possesses legitimate in-zone defensive upside, but thanks to bleeding shots and shot attempts against, he’s closer to an average defensive player than a good one – an upgrade on Nick Bonino in this specific area for sure, but not a team-changing one.

The bigger concern is that Sutter is a massive downgrade on Bonino offensively. While Bonino was Vancouver’s most efficient scorer last year, Sutter was the second most inefficient regular Penguins forward, generating points at less than 60% of the rate that Bonino did. This is a bit of a worrying trend for Sutter for sure, as he’s seen his scoring rate hold steady at a well below average 3rd line rate for a while:

bonino v sutter scoring

For a guy that Jim Benning called a “foundational piece,” Sutter’s two-way ability is virtually non-existent, or at least is has been since his sophomore NHL season. Remember, to be a good two-way player, you have to be strong at both ends of the rink, and Sutter is very weak offensively considering the role he’s played through his career.

Even though they’re not relevant to this particular trade, Brad Richardson and Shawn Matthias have both proven to be more consistently strong offensive contributors than Sutter has been over the last five seasons, and there’s decent evidence to support that Sutter is a downgrade on both on the penalty kill too. Like the Canucks, the Pens have benefited from a rather strong PK the last few seasons, but this has far more to do with Marc-Andre Fleury than it does with Penguins skaters. In fact, Sutter’s impact on limiting shots last season was quite similar (and a little worse) than Nick Bonino’s.

Relative to his teammates, Sutter has played a role in allowing 3.34 more shots per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time, ranking 101st out of 139 forwards to see 200 min of 4v5 TOI since 2012. For comparison’s sake, Bonino is 119th (+5.35), Matthias is 86th (+1.94), and Richardson is 23rd (-5.25). In terms of raw totals, Sutter has been the NHL’s 20th worst shorthanded shot preventer, while Richardson has been the 3rd best, and Nick Bonino is solidly in the middle of the pack.

On the powerplay, Sutter has proven to be just as ineffective as the Canucks woeful second unit last season too, as he’s traditionally been one of the worse powerplay performers in the NHL the past handful of seasons, seeing goals go in at the 30th worst rate among regular powerplay contributors . Granted, he’s suffered from similar problems as the Canucks’ second unit did last season – namely, his team loaded up the first unit and gave him the scraps – but if he’s expected to slide straight in to Bonino’s role, an upgrade here isn’t really reasonable to expect.

The net impact on Vancouver

The Canucks needed to address their in-zone defensive deficiencies after last season, seeing as it was a glaring weakness all year. Players such as Richardson, Zack Kassian, and Nick Bonino were shelled in their own end of the rink, and Brandon Sutter will help shore this specific area of their game up to an extent. At the very worst, he won’t hurt them too much in the defensive zone.

The problem is that you can’t intrinsically separate offensive from defensive contributions in hockey since everything is happening at once. It’s a game about each player driving differentials, and Sutter has done nothing but drive negative differentials for a long time now. Yes, his defensive play is good, but his offensive ability has been so bad that he’s routinely been unable to take more shots than the many he gives up, generate more chances than the few he gives up, and score more goals than the few he gives up – at least not without the help of remarkable goaltending behind him, which is something that Vancouver won’t have.

Though Nick Bonino worked out to be a pretty average hockey player on the whole that needed some support to get there, his strengths were at least strong enough to help his team see a small net benefit when he was on the ice. The same can’t really be said for Sutter, even if you’re willing to entertain the notion that Pittsburgh’s depth has been so bad that he’s been completely torpedoed as a hockey player. Accounting for the guys he’s played with and away from doesn’t really help us paint a more positive picture of the impact we project him to have.

Saying right now that a Sutter-for-Bonino swap is a saw-off is being pretty generous about Sutter’s prospects of improving immensely in a different situation in Vancouver, though not completely out of the question. He did have a decent season last year playing mainly with a handful of quality bottom-6 wingers in Nick Spaling, Beau Bennett, and Steve Downie, but out-possessing the opposition has been the exception rather than the rule for Sutter. And even then, he was out-chanced on the ice and was one of the very worst chance producing forwards in the whole league.

Being a 6’3 right-handed centre who is good on faceoffs and a good skater (and named “Sutter”), Brandon Sutter definitely gives the Canucks a different look. Different isn’t always better though, and it’s tough to argue that the Canucks got better unless you’re looking at it in overly simplistic terms, citing stuff such as faceoffs and hits and the like. 

Hockey is a goal scoring contest. The guy who helps your team score the most goals, whether it’s through strong defense, potent offence, relentless physicality, or sublime skill, is the best player. Brandon Sutter, despite his strengths being things held in high regard by the greater hockey world, has not helped his team score the most goals in the past. 

Let’s just hope that Sutter’s impending contract extension is closer to $2 million in AAV rather than $5M.



  • Dirty30

    Just a quibble, not sure where you get the idea that Crosby and Malkin aren’t elite possession drivers, they certainly are (unless you’re defining “elite” as Patrice Bergeron-level, in which case, yeah, they’re not Bergeron, but almost nobody is).

  • bigdaddykane

    Initially I was ready to bash this trade as another Benning WTF moment. While I still clearly see the mandate from the Aquilinis is playoffs or bust, this move isn’t as bad as it originally sounds.

    A) Sutter is the better player. No
    questioning that. He’s younger, bigger, faster, better on faceoffs, instantly becomes the canucks best penalty killer, and gives the Nucks a center who won’t get easily swatted aside by the Kopitars of the world.

    B) Clendening isn’t going to push any of the D ahead of him out of a spot. If he was middling in his own end at the AHL, he’ll be a fire drill at the NHL level. Forsling may turn out, but he was a 499th round pick out of nowhere who looked good at one tournament. Clendening isn’t a grade A prospect D at this stage

    C) the picks are very close in proximity to each other so its not as ugly as it looked at first glance.

    D) Sutter may not pile up the assists, but 18-20 goals a season will do just fine. Plus as was already mentioned, Bonino was frankly downright bad in the playoffs. Seemed to lose every key draw. Slow. Exposed by a crappy Calgary playoff team that got flattened like a bug by Anaheim. If the Stanley Cup were handed out in the regular season Kovalchuk, Ovechkin and yes our beloved Sedins woukd all be multiple cup winners.

    E) as Ferraro said, advanced stats are a great tool to have…but they aren’t the whole picture. Toews is the best forward in the world by a country mile. But his regular season numbers are kinda “meh.” for a guy of his contract and status. Come playoffs, he’s daggers. Scores every clutch goal the hawks need. In this regard, Boninos offensive numbers vs Sutters don’t pass the eye test. I dont like the downgrade in draft pick the most, coupled with again Bennings Achilles heel-contract negotiations. The inevitable Sutter deal will be 4+ at term too, based on Sbisa/Dorsett. Thats the ugly bit im worried about

    • t3

      I don’t think Sutter deserves much more than what he’s getting now but I’m betting he gets $4 mill. I can’t blame Benning either because anyone that scored in the 20 goal range is getting that now. It’s an overpay but that’s where the market is going. Sadly.

    • Dwj

      I keep hearing Sutter is some sort of playoff warrior, and you uses Toews as an example.

      Please, show me how this is the case?

      Guy has 12 points in 33 career playoff games and was a total non factor in the playoffs in his time in Pittsburg.

      This narrative has no legs. Even Ferrao on his radio interview says and I quote:

      “Sutter will poke check 100 guys, but not hit one”

      Does that sound like the gritty, mythical Sutter Benning just traded for and is sell the fanbase?

      Someone, show me why this guy has some reputation as a guy who steps up in the playoffs.
      It’s not in points. It’s not in physicality.

  • Dirty30

    I figure we’re gonna win every game against LA this season!

    Reason?

    Who on LA is going to skate back to the bench after pasting the Old Man’s kid to the boards?

    Now that’s a Sutter you fear.

    Should shoot the Baby-Sutter (BS for short) stats into the stratosphere and everyone in Canuckland will live happily ever after.

  • Dwj

    Holy cow, I just got on this site today. What a sad bunch of depressed losers. Reading these comments us like watching the game with your buddy’s but one guy brings that downer guy who knows nothing about hockey. Calls himself a nucks fan but never stops referring to the sedins as the sisters. Expects shutouts every game. And after every dump in says something like “why do they keep passing it to the other team”!. Stop projecting your bummer life on normal society. Get out of your moms basement suite. Perhaps a girlfriend would be a good idea. She’ll be heavy set and unattractive. But trust me your not too good for her.

    Hmmm go nucks

  • Dwj

    Holy cow, I just got on this site today. What a sad bunch of depressed losers. Reading these comments us like watching the game with your buddy’s but one guy brings that downer guy who knows nothing about hockey. Calls himself a nucks fan but never stops referring to the sedins as the sisters. Expects shutouts every game. And after every dump in says something like “why do they keep passing it to the other team”!. Stop projecting your bummer life on normal society. Get out of your moms basement suite. Perhaps a girlfriend would be a good idea. She’ll be heavy set and unattractive. But trust me your not too good for her.

    Hmmm go nucks

  • Dwj

    Holy cow, I just got on this site today. What a sad bunch of depressed losers. Reading these comments us like watching the game with your buddy’s but one guy brings that downer guy who knows nothing about hockey. Calls himself a nucks fan but never stops referring to the sedins as the sisters. Expects shutouts every game. And after every dump in says something like “why do they keep passing it to the other team”!. Stop projecting your bummer life on normal society. Get out of your moms basement suite. Perhaps a girlfriend would be a good idea. She’ll be heavy set and unattractive. But trust me your not too good for her.

    Hmmm go nucks

  • bigdaddykane

    I don’t mind Sutter for Bonino (and aside from percentages, he is a better FO guy, taking 115 more draws and winning 100 more than Bonino is not insignificant over the year) though I am worried about the size of the extension. The draft picks are as has been noted before essentially a wash, though it worries me how much Benning seems to need to sweeten deals with picks. I don’t really understand dumping Clendenning — while not super strong here I thought he and Stanton were a better pairing than anytime Sbisa was on the ice and Clendenning seemed to have a very solid playoff with Utica. That seems poor asset management to me; I get that we signed Bartkowski and Weber so maybe he replicates too much of the latter’s skill set and Weber did perform better in the latter half of the season.

    It’s still a lot of nibbling around the edges of the team and I don’t think any of the trades (Bonino, Lack, Kassian) are the disasters some make it out to be but on aggregate it’s a little bit concerning and has a death by a thousand cuts vibe to it. It’s hard not to feel a bit like Desjardins and Benning are too emotionally invested in players they drafted or coached previously.

  • BuffaloBillsOfHockey

    Forsling for Clandening was one of like two or three good moves that Benning had made in his tenure.

    Clandening was praised as a future top 4. Now they are saying he’s not an NHLer and that he is not good in his own zone. How can they change their opinion of a player so quickly and so drastically in less than a year? Keep in mind we pay 3M+ for Sbisa who is barely an NHLer by both the eye test and analytics.

    Sutter and Bonino would have been fine. We pay more for a righthanded faceoff capable centre who is a bit younger. And honestly, trading Ducks’ 2nd for Buffalo’s 3rd is probably a wash too.

    Benning’s response to why we were throwing in Clandening was because Penguins was after him even at the draft. Pittsburgh saves a lot of money, improves draft position, then uses that money to sign capable bottom 6 in Fehr while also getting a great D prospect.

    Anyway you slice it, Canucks got fleeced. And this is becoming a common theme with this regime.

  • Dwj

    Both sides in this debate are overreacting and overreaching. At this point the deal is neither good nor bad. Time will tell.

    I personally happen to think that current analytical tools inflate the value of Bonino and deflate the value of Sutter, but the real test will be on-ice results, not crystal ball gazing. I have a hard time giving credence to any analytical analysis that pegs Nick Bonino as a first line player. On the other hand, the numbers on Sutter are concerning. We’ll see how it all washes out.

    As for Clendenning and the pick, I happen to see Clendenning as an elite AHL lifer, but Pittsburgh’s defence is so thin he may see quality minutes at the NHL level. We’ll see how he handles them. The pick swap is a wash.

    My major concern about the Canucks re-upping Sutter isn’t the money. We’re at the beginning of a soft rebuild. There will be room to add salary as veterans fall off the books after this year and next. My concern is term. If Benning holds the term of any extension to 3 years or less, I will be fine. If we see a deal with 4,5,6 years of term – unless its at bargain basement dollars (but it won’t be) – I’ll be unhappy. And while I said I didn’t care about money, I’d like to see the dollars NOT exceed $4 million per.

    I understand that it’s August. Nothing else hockey related is happening so its fun to completely lose one’s feces over a swap of third line centres, but in the grand scheme of things this is small potatoes. I really like this site and the insight it provides, but for some reason I get a perverse joy out of how crazy Jim Benning is driving the writers here. It’s probably because they have been so insistent that the Canucks should tank , but paradoxically have collectively pooped their pants over what they consider to be a series of bad moves by management. Figure out what you want lads!

  • bigdaddykane

    I think if it wasn’t for the perceived poor handling and returns in the Lack/Kassian/Bieksa trades people would be pretty happy with this trade. Unfortunately there is to much negativity surrounding Benning now and people are looking to jump all over him for any moves he makes.
    Bonino is a fine player but he just didn’t fit as either a 2nd or 3rd line center. The team needed to get bigger, faster and better on the faceoff which they did. We know what we had didn’t work so a change needed to be made.

  • bigdaddykane

    I personally like the trade. He has always been behind either both Stall’s in Carolina (other than his rookie campaign..I think which is the year he scored the most) and the 2 headed Crosbmalkin beasts in the Burg. Just like last year when we got Bonino, we really need to see what this guy does before we bash him. I liked Bonino, but I really do feel Sutter is a better fit for where the team (I think) is trying to go. As for Clendenning I wonder if it was more about a cap space throw in than anything else. If you add up his and Bonino’s salary it’s not too far off Sutters. Plus they still needed to re-sign Sven and also keep 1.5 mil cap room “just in case”. I dunno, may be wrong. But still like the move and the direction…even if the numbers don’t dictate it.

  • Dwj

    @Ktownfan

    Haha, well very true eh! I wonder who he was playing with in his first year then? He seemed to have a lot of upside and a 40 point capaign to boot. And dropped off since. Still like the trade in any case. Sorry for the eff up!

  • Dwj

    I wondering why everyone is sooooo sad Bonino is gone?

    He was very very hot the first month of the season, then disappeared! If he is not scoring goals, he is doing nothing! Vrbata was the reason the second line produced at all. He had to become playmaker and scorer.

    Sutter brings exactly what the Canucks need which is a big center that is good in the face offs circle. I know all the Advanced Analytics crowd seems to think there is no difference if you match Bonino or Sutter up against let’s see….., Kopitar/Dustin Brown/ Kesler/ Ect…….. There is.

    The East and West play two different styles of hockey and the West is a bigger tougher style. Benning is making the Canucks a tougher grittier team that won’t get pushed around especially in their own zone.Plus last year they were among the worst in face off %. Now with Sutter and Horvat they have two big skating face off guys that can play in all three zones.

    As far as Clendenning goes same deal. He was behind Corrado on the depth chart and a small Dman with an average shot. With Calgary/Kings/Ducks/Sharks having a smaller Dcorps doesn’t help. He was expendable and he wasn’t a potential top 4 Dman. Maybe in the AHL

  • bigdaddykane

    View from Pittsburgh: Salary dump to get Fehr. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
    Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford swears he doesn’t have anything personal against Brandon Sutter. Honest.

    “He’s actually, believe it or not, one of my favorite guys,” Rutherford said. “And I’ve ended up trading him twice.”

    The Penguins dealt Sutter and a third-round pick in 2016 to the Vancouver Canucks Tuesday for center Nick Bonino, defenseman Adam Clendening and a second-round pick in 2016.

    That move cleared enough salary-cap space for the Penguins to sign former Washington Capitals center Eric Fehr, a free agent, to a three-year deal worth a total of $6 million.

    With Sutter scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason, the moves were designed and made to improve the team’s bottom-six forwards.

    “He was one year away from being an unrestricted free agent, and I felt with this opportunity, it was a chance to get somebody for him in Nick Bonino and Adam Clendening,” Rutherford said. “We really like Nick as a center iceman. Adam is an up and coming young defenseman who is a skilled offensive player.”

  • Dwj

    Sutter is better than Bonino in every aspect of the game. He’s bigger, hits more, is faster, better in the faceoff circle and scores more. Playing 3rd line centre he scored more than Bonino who was gifted the 2nd line centre position and absolutely disappeared in the playoffs. Once the Canucks signed Bartkowski and Weber everyone knew that Corrado and Clendening wern’t both going to be on the roster. Rather than lose one to the waivers (maybe to Calgary or Edmonton) they tradd one of them. Big deal, the kid wouldn’t have made the club anyway. The draft picks we a wash. Whoever gets the best player wins the trade. We got the best player yet you duchy guys at Canucks Army still whine about your glass being half empty. Grow a pair.