Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin / USA TODAY Sports
Of all Jim Benning’s decisions this off-season, few were as controversial as the trade for Brandon Sutter. The general consensus was that Sutter might be a positive fit within the grand scheme of how the Canucks align their forwards, but there was immense value lost in the trade itself and the contract that followed.
Rather than offering commentary on Sutter through a meaningful series of observation and the like, the writers in this space opted to break out their spreadsheets and decree his uselessness with a certainty bordering on hubris. Much like the statistics they so desperately cling to as gospel, they failed to take into account several key factors like heart, leadership, grit, intangibles and pedigree in the evaluation process.
Luckily for the Canucks, Benning didn’t. Instead, the Canucks brain trust magnified these traits and weighed their importance accordingly. Join me to find out why Vancouver is better for it, on the other side of the jump.
One of the primary concerns in trading Nick Bonino for Sutter was the even strength offence the Canucks were purported to have lost. It doesn’t take long to find holes in this logic, though. Sutter has two 20-goal seasons to Bonino’s one; not to mention 98 career goals to Bonino’s 48. Of course, the pocket protector crowd will counter with an argument based on rate production – as if there aren’t any holes in that method of evaluation…
knows that, wrote to ask if I had written an explanation for that yet. I haven’t, but here’s how I responded. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/6k64bVBizx
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) August 4, 2015
Equally as concerning for the crowd that views games on excel were Sutter’s underlying possession metrics. There are any number of perfectly rational explanations as to why Sutter has been a disappointment where territorial play is concerned, but in keeping with the Bonino comparison (fairly so) we should explore the demons of the departed first.
Before joining the Canucks last season, Bonino was a huge territorial liability. At no point had he displayed anything resembling defensive acumen or two-way ability in his career to that point. So one has to ask themselves if last season’s results were driven primarily by playing alongside Alex Burrows and Radim Vrbata, or a switch was flicked. I lean towards the former.
When glancing at Sutter’s even strength results it becomes increasingly clear why he might’ve struggled to move the needle positively for the Penguins. He’s played primarily with grinding, plug-style players or developing forwards – both of which can struggle immensely with possession. There’s also the matter of Sutter’s role, which saw him playing top line talent on a nightly basis, with a defensively slanted set of zone starts.
Enough of the beating to death of statistics, though. Context is valuable, but only to a point. What drove the Canucks to acquire Sutter were his qualitative attributes. Size and speed are chief among them, given his 6’3 frame and long skating stride to accompany it. Sure, the Tampa Bay Lightning made it to the Stanley Cup Finals with a line affectionately dubbed “The Triplets” for their diminutive stature. On a related note, they lost. Size matters, you know?
When it comes to elite qualities, though, the conversation begins with Sutter’s pedigree. Firstly, he was a very highly touted first round selection, once upon a time. Then there’s the matter of the Sutter name, a proud distinction within the hockey community to be sure.
What’s in a name, you might ask? Well, take the Gretzky dynasty, for example. Wayne Gretzky lit the world on fire with his scoring, leaving undressed defenders in his wake at a rate nobody has touched since. Has Paulina Gretzky not scored and undressed at a similar pace? I place a lot of stock in pedigree, as should anyone within the hockey community if we’re being entirely honest.
The best of this ‘foundational’ players qualities are what Benning described as “high-end intangibles”. The beauty of an intangible is that it can’t be measured in numbers. It brings the romanticism of hockey back into play and puts love firmly in the eyes of the beholder. In this case, it goes without saying that Benning was crushing hard.
With the stats put into plain context and the qualitative traits painting the picture of an elite player, it’s increasingly clear that the Canucks have a foundational piece in Sutter. Whatever that means.