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
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.
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
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.
— Ryan Wilson (@GunnerStaal) July 28, 2015
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:
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.