How Bad Was Sutter With the Sedins? An Excessively In-Depth Look

Training camp is a time for experimentation, so it shouldn’t come as much of surprise when pretty odd line combinations show up. Of course, once you get closer to the end of training camp, you normally start to see lineups that resemble what they will be on opening night. In fact, experimenting for too long risks drawing the ire of some of your veterans.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when the Canucks were still experimenting during the final game of the preseason. In an effort to accommodate 19-year old centre Jared McCann by flanking him with top 9 wingers, while Adam Cracknell centered the fourth line, the Canucks coaching staff moved career centre Brandon Sutter to right wing. On the top line. With the Sedins.

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The results were disastrous, apparently. Sutter’s 38% CorsiFor percentage was pretty damning. Fans were not impressed, yet evidently head coach Willie Desjardins liked what he saw – on Monday morning, Sutter was again skating with the Sedins at practice. Like it or not, it looks like the Sedin-Sutter combination will be making another appearance.

So we have to ask: how bad was Brandon Sutter with the Sedins?

Preamble

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No, it is not.

However, if there’s one caveat to be made, it’s that little issue of sample size. Sure a -10 is terrible.. but it is only a single game.

And if there’s one bit of advice that readers are always giving the writers at Canucks Army, it’s watch the games, nerd!

So, I did. Here’s a little something I’m calling Visual Corsi.

Basically, I’ve compiled all of Brandon Sutter’s even strength shifts from the Edmonton game on Saturday. This should allow to relive how he looked with the twins, as well as give some context to his horrendous Corsi score.

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Also, a bit of pretext: as anyone who has ever manually tracked an NHL game knows, the official NHL Play-by-Play that #fancystats websites gather their data from is rife with mistakes. Over the course of 1230 games per season, no one really bothers to worry about these errors – it still beats manual tracking. However, since I’m just working with this one game, I am using my own tracked shot attempts. This won’t change the final tally much, but it will explain any discrepancy between what it is written here, and the official reported numbers.

Let’s walk through the game and see if Sutter’s game had any redeeming qualities.

First Period

Things started off rather poorly.

Sutter Falls Down (03-Sep-15)

The first period was characterized more by ineptitude on the part of the entire first line, rather than Sutter’s abilities. While the clip here is of Sutter taking a bit of a soft tumble, each member of the top line took turns falling down while trying to apply offensive zone pressure, usually resulting in the Oilers escaping the zone quickly thereafter.

Defence was not a big issue for Sutter and the Sedins either. They had occasional difficulty clearing the zone, but Edmonton did not generate any chances as a result, usually because they tried to force passes into crowded areas and turned the puck over.

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As a result, there were few shot attempts directed at either net when Sutter was on the ice during the first period. Daniel Sedin had a shot off the wing just under six minutes in, and Alex Edler fired a puck into a defender’s shin pads in the waning seconds, followed by Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins firing a shot wide on a 2-on-1.

That was it. Sutter ended the first period with a Corsi differential of +1.

Second Period

During an early shift in the second period, Sutter got – for lack of a better word – screwed in the Corsi department by coming on to the ice just as the Oilers broke into the offensive zone and fired a number of pucks into Ryan Miller as the Canucks broke down defensively.

Sutter replaces Jake Virtanen as the Oiler forward Benoit Pouliot splits the Vancouver defence far a partial breakaway, which Miller saves, though there are two rebounds in quick succession. After a scrambly 10 seconds, Matt Bartkowski manages to clear the zone, though he then misplaces a pass in between Adam Cracknell and Brandon Sutter. Sutter reaches desperately back to grab it, but Nugent-Hopkins is too fast for him. Again the Oilers get off multiple shots on net while Sutter is returning from the zone.

This time, Sutter clears the zone successfully. Failing to get the puck deep however, the Oilers regroup and attack again. This time Sutter gets beaten relatively easily by Taylor Hall and the Oilers get a couple more chances on net. Sutter bears significantly more responsibility for this last sequence than the first two.

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All told, the Oilers managed 9 shot attempts (8 on net) in under a minute with Sutter on the ice. The vast majority of them were beyond his ability to prevent, but such is life when it comes to on-ice stats. Sutter’s glaring Corsi differential got a lot of flack, but in reality this one minute was responsible for the entirety of that – he was roughly even for the rest of the game, both before and after this series of sequences.

Well maybe you can a little. Maybe his Corsi looked worse than it should have. That’s a neat excuse, but Corsi isn’t the only thing that matters (shocking, I know).

Visually, the top line did look much better in the second than they did in the first. They had trouble sustaining offensive zone pressure, and were occasionally lost in their own zone. Towards the end of the period, something started to click, and the passes started getting through. There was some borderline Sedinery taking root, but unfortunately, there was no finish.

Sutter Misses the Pass

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Whoops. Frustrating, I know.

There were improvements in Sutter’s personal play as well. For one thing, his forechecking improved from hitting the boards and falling down, to executing a proper pin on Justin Schultz in the Oilers’ end.

Sutter Pins Schultz

Shortly after that, he also showcased his speed by breaking free of defenders and getting a breakaway. He didn’t score, but another positive thing I noticed here was his ability to recover from a stumble and not lose speed. This happened a couple of other times during the game as well, and it’s certainly not as easy as it looks.

Sutter Breakaway

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I’m a little suspicious that he only tripped over the blueline here because he’s wearing #21 on his back. Hopefully it doesn’t become a habit. We’ll monitor this going forward.

Third Period

During an interview with TSN1040’s Midday Show on Tuesday morning, Henrik Sedin was asked about how he felt his first game with Brandon Sutter went. The captain was frank in his answer.

“I was a little surprised. In the first game, I thought the first two periods, it wasn’t very good. But after that we got our legs going and I thought in the third it felt really good.”

Hank does have a tendency to lean towards the positive side of things, but he might be on to something here. The third period was a noticeable improvement for the first line – largely because the Sedins played better.

Like many of the veterans, the Sedins had been taken it easy in the preseason, and while Sedinery had showed itself from time to time, there were long stretches of uninspired play. The first two periods of the final preseason game fell under that category.

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That isn’t to absolve Sutter of any blame for the nothingness that was coming from the top unit. All three of them had trouble staying on their skates and were giving the puck away at a Sbisa-like rate. Plus, Sutter is already substantially less skilled with the Sedins, so he looks even more pedestrian when he’s shaking off the cobwebs.

In the third period though, as the Sedins looked better, Sutter looked better – and by extension the line looked better as a whole. They got scored on early in the period, though it was on a rush play that the forwards were not a part of – rookie defenceman Ben Hutton got walked by Nugent-Hopkins and fed the puck to Pouliot, who was not at all being covered by Luca Sbisa. The goal itself was a backdoor play that looked frighteningly reminiscent of the goals that were scored on Miller in Game 6 of the Calgary series – but that’s a whole other thing.

Offensively, they cycled well, and managed to set up chances. They just couldn’t hit the net.

There were still some unfortunate moments, picked off passes and turnovers. It’s possible that some of this stuff will shake itself out during the regular season. Or it could get worse, who knows.

Within the last few minutes of play (overtime included), the Canucks scored two goals: both with the Sedins on the ice, and both with Sutter on the bench. Leading to speculation (some jokingly, some serious) that the Sedins need only be liberated from Sutter to produce offense. That seems unlikely, considering that these guys can make Byron Bitz score a goal, they can probably squeeze some out of Sutter.

Onward

So maybe you hated the Sedin and Sutter combination – you wouldn’t be alone – and you were just thankful that it was over. Then, you saw this on Monday morning.

That’s how it would appear.

Regardless of whether it was visually pleasing, it’s not shocking that they would give this another shot, for a few reasons.

First, the coach apparently liked it. He thought it was real good. “Honestly, I really liked it,” he said in the post-game interview. “I thought it was good. They had some good chances.”

Second, Henrik apparently liked it, at least towards the end of the game and since then. “In practice the last couple of days, it feels like the chemistry is there,” Henrik said Tuesday morning. “We’ll see once the game starts, but so far, so good.”

Finally, the biggest reason – the reason that likely led to this move in the first place – is that it is what’s best for the other centremen, particularly rookie Jared McCann.

Since McCann has made the team, the goal is to put him in situations where he is likely to succeed, as well as where he is least likely to hurt the team. The solution to both of those requirements is to place him on the third line with Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen – two of the team’s best defensive wingers, with offensive instincts to go along with that. McCann on the fourth line between Derek Dorsett and Brandon Prust may be a little tricky for his debut – he showed some difficulty when placed with less talented wingers in preseason.

The shift of Sutter also allows Bo Horvat to take the second line centre position – a spot he likely would have grabbed from Sutter in short order any how. There’s also the possibility of placing Sutter on the fourth line and shuffling the wingers, but you can see where management would be resistant to that – what with his recent extension and declaration as a “foundational player”.

While Sutter is primarily a defensive centre and many have spoken of his low offensive production (by rate, not raw numbers), he is not bereft of offensive talent. The Sedins should at least be able to bounce some pucks in off of him, while the Canucks are able to ice three other respectable lines.

There’s also a strong possibility that he will return to the middle in the event that McCann is swapped out for Jake Virtanen. It seems likely that the coaching will alternate the two 19-year olds in and out of the lineup, without them overlapping – at least to start the year. This will likely have Sutter as the third line centre and grant you a temporary reprieve from the Sutter-on-the-wing experiment.

Until then, here’s hoping that any cringeworthy displays from the preseason finale can be accounted for at least in part by Sutter’s unfamiliarity on the wing, and that he can overcome this unfamiliarity. While it’s less pleasing than having Vrbata or Burrows on that line, I would suggest that it at least beats Jannik Hansen standing at the blue line waiting for one-timers. Plus, it allows for some better lines down the depth chart.

In any case, Willie D is gonna do what he’s gonna do. We’re still waiting for the time when he listens to twitter or blogs rather than the opinion of his players – especially Henrik Sedin. So we’re just going to have to suck it up for now. I would encourage you to give it another go, as it seems that the line wasn’t as bad as the numbers or select glaring incidents made it look.



  • Spiel

    When Higgins returns, perhaps…

    Higgins take Burrows’ place on the 3rd line, who takes Sutter’s place on the 1st line, who takes McCann’s place on the 3rd line, who takes Cracknell’s place on the 4th line.

    Or something like that.

  • Orville Wright

    Thanks for an excellent post. I always crack up when advanced stats prognosticators do not recognize sample size or downplay it. Corsi has little meaning for individual players or single games. At it’s best it gives you a sense at the end of the year who the strong teams are and which weaker possession teams are likely to not advance in the playoffs. The end of the year since you need an appropriate sample size. There is little to no repeatably in hockey like there is in baseball. Comparing one player on one team to another on another team strictly by corsi is really a waste of time. Keep up the good work, nice post

    • It’s actually 10 games where sample size for Corsi becomes significantly meaningful for individuals.

      Not a waste either.

      Just because hockey isn’t as isolated as baseball doesn’t mean statistical analysis doesn’t work or isn’t useful.

      It’s the same BS argument some homeopathies give re: scientific medicine.

  • Spiel

    Nice work. As someone else posted, using Corsi to assess an individual’s performance in one game is ridiculous! As you showed, the difference between a positive number and the number that Sutter posted was due to one shift where he stepped onto the ice and had no possible ability to affect the outcome for 8 negative Corsi events.

    Plus, this was Sutter first time ever playing the wing. Advanced stats are useful, but you have to use and apply them correctly.

  • Orville Wright

    I appreciate the “Visual Corsi”, sometimes you gotta step away from the spreadsheets and really see what’s going on.

    I don’t know why Virtanen is sitting and Dorsett is playing. You’d think it would make more sense to put Cracknell back on right wing (which is his natural position), drop Sutter to the fourth line (which shouldn’t matter ’cause WD is rolling 4 lines, right?), put Vrbata with the Sedins (which is why he was signed in the first place and where he wants to play) and put Virtanen with Baertschi and Horvat (where they were lights out against the Oilers). All of those moves won’t happen because WD *needs* to have Dorsett in the lineup???

  • In principle, Sutter with the Sedins seems to make sense – he’s big, strong, fast, can crash the net, and even though he hasn’t been great in the corsi department, he’s good at putting the puck in the net (kind of Matthias-esque). That’s the kind of guy you think would excel with the Sedins.

    I just hope if it doesn’t work after a few games, they don’t force the issue and go back to Vrbata or Burrows.

  • This might be one of the most objective and satisfying articles to ever appear on CA. It clearly shows that Sutter was not instant chemistry with the Sedins, but it is an idea with some value.

    Sutter won his share of faceoffs, too. That matters as puck possession leads directly to goals; win a face-off, up your chances to shoot the puck at the net, maybe score a goal. Sedins game is predicated on puck possession, thus it makes sense to have a guy who can get them the puck off the faceoff dot to facsilitate that.

  • We all know that playing with the Sedins is the easiest thing ever. It takes practically no effort to complement the play of the game’s arguably most cerebral players. Even more so when you’ve played zero games with the team.

    Solid premise as usual CA.

  • Loved this article, even if I still think Sutter is still a bit of a mess of lukewarm garbage with or without the Sedins.

    I can’t wait to get the regular season under way and remember the preseason for what it is — ‘make the team’ for prospects and bubble players and ‘don’t get injured’ for vets.

  • I just don’t understand why the default isn’t to put Burrows with the Sedins.

    They played all their best years together, and still they refuse to do it.

    I just don’t get it. Someone explain it to me, please. Please explain how Sutter, Vrbata, Hansen, or any of the others are better than the only guy they had on their wing when they were scoring 100 points. He scored more, they scored more, why can’t they just keep them together?

    Stupid, stupid, stupid..

    • It’s good to have options. Last year they played part of the season with Burrows, part with Vrbata. It reminded me of 2009-2011 when they would usually play with Burrows, but when Vigneault wanted to shake things up, he’d put them with Samuelsson, and they were great.

      Right now they want to play McCann at centre and shield him a bit by giving him two good two-way wingers in Burrows and Hansen. They want to see how Horvat can produce with two offensive wingers in Baertschi and Vrbata. And they want to see if Sutter can use his size and speed to create space for a Sedin cycle. Makes perfect sense to me. If it doesn’t work, they can put Burrows back with them.

      If coaches weren’t willing to try novel lines and new linemates with the Sedins, we’d never have gotten Burrows with them in the first place.

    • t3

      Whatever they’re thinking, I’m very confident they know quite a bit more than you do. Otherwise, you would be doing what they are doing and they would be sitting in their basements criticizing you. Oh, BTW, what did you think of that line in the season opener? Right.

    • t3

      I don’t think advanced stats are the problem. I think CA writing about one-game sample sizes is, and it’s idiotic.

      At CA narrative comes first, stats come second. The amount of confirmation bias is appalling. At least PITB is funny.

  • t3

    Hahahahahahhahahahahahahahhahahahahaha

    thIs entire post is a joke.

    come to this site the morning after a win when Sutter has a fantastic debut with the Sedins and see this?!?!?!??

    Wow.

    How ridiculous can you get!

    • t3

      I agree. Let’s see the same type of breakdown on the season opener. He posted this semi-drivel at 2:24 on the 7th, and it’s about 36 hours after their first real game. And let’s not forget, the game he breaks down was essentially the first SSS get together. Chemistry is not always instant.

  • t3

    Wow what a waist of time writing this article. Your stupid. Do you now write and article about how wrong you were or do you stick to your guns .Go get a job at a gas station. Night shift of course. Your useless. Stop taking up valuable space on the internet.

  • t3

    CROW sure is delicious isn’t it. Sutter looking Foundational with the Sedins.

    Jokes and teasing aside one good game and one bad game don’t give us much to go on. I’ll wait and see and hope Sutter pans out.