Brandon Sutter’s return might not help as much as you hope it will

Brandon Sutter will be returning to the Vancouver Canucks’ lineup tonight for the first time since November 10th. While the 26-year-old centre has his detractors, the overwhelming majority of the fanbase is excited for his return. After all the Canucks were 7-4-5 with him in the lineup and have been 13-14-6 since. That’s a difference in point pace of eighteen over the span of 82 games; or, to put it another way, the difference between the upper end of the basement and making the playoffs.

At the same time, though, it’s possible that he’s not the missing piece that will make this team successful. Let me take you on a journey laced with East Coast Bias if you’ll allow me.

In a lot of ways, this year’s Canucks team reminds me of the 2013/14 Toronto Maple Leafs. Both teams were at the bottom of the league standings two years prior, appeared to be ready for a slow crawl back up, and suddenly shot up from the bottom four of their conference to the fifth seed. Both teams tragically lost to a rival, and both management groups had the same thought.

One of “hey, maybe things aren’t so bad”. One where the team didn’t necessarily have to mortgage the future for aging players, but at the same time, didn’t need to sell to fully restock the cupboards. One where all the team needed to be successful in the present was a bit more sandpaper, a bit more character, and a bit more passion. There was no need to rebuild; just a need to retool.

Both teams even set their sights on the same core asset come draft day; not a top prospect, but an NHL-ready centre to be a force to be reckoned with in the bottom six. The Canucks chose to trade Nick Bonino, Adam Clendenning, and a second round pick for Sutter and a conditional third. The Leafs traded a second and a pair of fourth rounders for Dave Bolland. Yes, the very same Dave Bolland who is a villain in Vancouver for being a general shit disturber and having choice words to describe Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

Here’s the thing about Bolland in Toronto; he only lasted a single year, but he encapsulated the era that was before the team finally got serious about their rebuild.

Bolland built up a bit of an unwarranted reputation. He had two Stanley Cup rings, one of which he scored the winning goal for just weeks prior to the trade. But he was a secondary player on a team loaded to the brim with star players, which made him look better than he was. His even strength point production was solid (playing 92% of your ES minutes with Patrick Kane in your last year helps), but he was Chicago’s worst possession player, year in and year out. He was seen as a penalty killer, but he caused more penalties than he drew, making himself unavailable to help. But he was a hard worker, muti-time champion, and a local boy, so the Leafs felt that he was the piece they needed to go the extra mile; even going as far as to buy out Mikhail Grabovski to make room for him.

Things started out great for him. Bolland picked up 11 points in his first 15 games, including two Game Winning goals. He crashed the net more than the Hawks had ever allowed him to, and the unsustainable Leafs started the season 10-4-0. Management felt extremely smart about their choice. But then, against the Canucks (go figure), Bolland went into the boards with Zack Kassian and came out with a severed Ankle Tendon.

The injury was severe and punted him out of the lineup for a little over four months. The Leafs tumbled down the standings; as a circumstance, rather than a result. Toronto’s record over the prior calendar year had been massively inflated by above-the-curve shooting and save percentage numbers, and once the sticks went cold, the team cratered. By the time Bolland returned to the lineup, the Leafs were in their rightful place near the bottom of the standings. 

But over the course of his recovery, the general tone across the mainstream media and the fanbase was that the team missed their utility forward. The team wasn’t losing because they were poorly coached and ill-suited to take on the rest of the league according to them; they were losing because they were missing Bolland’s talent, charisma, two-way play, and leadership. His return was much anticipated, and pressure was put on the team to make him a building block moving forward.

But even his early-season numbers were a career-wise anomaly. In those 15 games, he was scoring just as much despite fewer opportunities, driving play, and creating scoring chances; none of which he had ever one prior, and none of which he ever did again. In his final eight games of the season, he played sheltered minutes, had below average possession numbers on one of the worst possession teams in history, scored just two points, and his team won just two games.

Even still, the Leafs tried their hardest to sign him. Bolland asked for 7 or 8 years at $5 million per; Dave Nonis was okay with the term, but wanted to bring the dollar figure ever so slightly lower. Despite being less than a million dollars apart over the full term, Bolland walked away from negotiations, eventually signing a five-year deal with Florida for an obscene $5.5 million per season.

Today, Bolland continues to struggle with lower body injuries and has played just 78 games in the past season and a half. He’s been one of Florida’s weakest contributors in every facet of the game, having clearly lost a step on his already less than exemplary performance.

sutterbolland

What does this have to do with Brandon Sutter, you might ask? Well, they’re very comparable players. Both have reputations as fantastic shutdown forwards due to their visual efforts, whether it’s their foot speed, their relentlessness in blocking shots or throwing the body, and their willingness to be on the ice in absolutely any situation. The data leans towards neither being particularly good at their jobs.. until the start of their first post-trade season.

Like Bolland, Sutter’s numbers in his first stretch of games (15 to Sutter’s 16) are well above his previous 400+ games of hockey. His even strength production is up, his shooting percentage is up, his usually shockingly bad relative possession numbers are unusually positive, and he’s even doing significantly better at the faceoff dot. He has eight points in sixteen games; not spectacular, but his best pace in over half a decade nonetheless.

But it’s very unlikely that, after 495 regular season games, Sutter has improved enough to singlehandedly make the Canucks a winning hockey team. It’s more probable that he was a benefactor of an usually positive stretch, and that he disappeared from the lineup at just the right time for his own results. It’s created an illusion of success where the odds favour “right place at the right time”.

It should also be noted that its rare for a player to come back from a Sports Hernia surgery and be better for it. The declines of Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Jonathan Cheechoo, Michael Grabner, Kyle Wellwood, and many others (usually goalies) may have been coincidentally timed with their surgeries, but there is a definite loss in mobility associated with the procedure. That’s concerning, especially when Sutter’s foot speed is such a huge part of his game.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t hold my breath in regards to Sutter being able to return at the same capacity as he started the year. More likely than not, you’ll see him decline back to his typical production and possession rates, especially once Henrik Sedin returns to take back the lion’s share of centre ice time. Unfortunately for the Canucks, they jumped the gun on the whole “long term contract decision” part of the equation, but at least his salary is a fair bit lower than what Florida put into his unfortuante comparable.

  • The good news, though, is that the Leafs/Canucks comparison falls apart on one point; the Leafs signed David Clarkson to an obnoxiously long, high-cost deal in hopes of getting a local boy power forward who could beat up his foes. Not even the Canucks are that dumb!

    *looks up Milan Lucic on NHL Numbers*

    *tries not to panic*

    • Fred-65

      You are seriously comparing Lucic and Sutter to Clarkson and Bolland? Everyone (other than Nonis) knew that Clarkson was an overpay, Bolland was overrated for the Leafs and they were lucky to get out of that when Florida overpaid. Lucic I don’t like and pray the Canucks don’t get him but it’s clear that he was a prototypical power forward in Boston and has regained that edge in LA. Sutter was the centerpiece of the Staal deal and worth the cost of Bonino, Clendenning (who is onto his 4th team in 3 years and in the AHL now I believe) and a flip of close picks.

      Sutter isn’t a longtime savior, anymore than Dorsett, Sbisa and Miller. They are all overpays (mostly on amount not term) at a time when we can afford it, when the goal, no matter what the management says publicly, is to allow the Sedins to retire gracefully while still being reasonably competitive and develop the next core for the team. They are the interim bandaids for us. Sutter won’t get us into the playoffs but he might help take some of the burden off of Horvat, Henrik when he returns and whoever’s in the mix for the 4LC (Vey/McCann likely).

  • Dirty30

    1. Discussing Bolland is like posting close-ups of an infected boil on your nether regions. Sure, you think it’s really important, but it’s just a pus-bag to the rest of us.

    2. The Sutter contract was another one of those “Jeez, how many pucks to the head did Benning take in his career?” moments. He’s probably the only person on the planet that expected or expects Sutter to be the foundation of anything but a solid tank.

    3. The good news about Suters return is simply that it gives the young guys some rest and recuperation time while Sutter helps the team tank.

  • andyg

    there is no more need for me to come on this site and try to ignite the frustration that is the pathetic canucks…the writers errr sorry basement bloggers are doing it for me.

    ellipsis CA. ellipsis.

    i hate it when my mama don’t make me meatloaf too and i tend to write negative all the time cause of it.

    i say goodbye to all you delusional nucks fans.

    i am no longer required here…good day

      • Cageyvet

        you used? or I used? wait are you me or am I me?

        oh that andyg how I will miss your confusing yet educating musings.

        listen you…listen

        I am a tool…yes
        do I know anything…no
        again am I a tool…yes
        do I act like a child at times…yes
        do I come here looking for a friend…yes
        have I found any that can stand me…no
        you think I have a women…well no
        you think I live in my own basement…no
        do I live in a basement…yes
        my mamas…yes
        do I like meatloaf…yes
        do I get mad when my mama don’t make me meatloaf…hell yes
        do I get angry and negative when I don’t get said meatloaf…yes
        can I blog here on this site…yes

        ellipsis andyg…ellipsis

        • andyg

          You are an impostor or am I an impostor. Maybe we are all impostors from our true inner identity. Inner voices say I am, who I am but are any of us who we should be?

          Where is the real NMOO?

  • andyg

    Did you guys read the post? The point is that Bolland had similar numbers and reputation. Whether you agree or not, the justification for the comparison is spelled out. If you don’t agree, why not present some numbers to back up your statements? Benning put a lot of eggs in the Sutter basket, it’s worth discussing.

  • andyg

    The Canucks were an average possession team and in every single game until Sutter went down.

    And that’s with a number of mediocre defenseman being tasked with more minutes than they can handle.

    Once Hank is back, I look forward to the Canucks rolling out a first line and 3 third lines.

    This situation isn’t remotely comparable to the Leafs of 2 years ago.

  • Fred-65

    JB is now trying to justify the trade and resigning of Sutter. I believe JB thought of Sutter as a replacement for Kesler as a 2nd line centre…here’s the problem Horvat has overtaken Sutter and now JB has a problem what do we do with Sutter ….and at that money ??

    • andyg

      Sutter can be moved in the last two years of his deal. The money is market value and he will be 31 at the end of the contract. Kesler got a six year extension for 6.875 mil per and he will be 37 years old at the end.

      Sutter gives them a veteran center for the next few years. Once the kids take over he can be moved. That is good management.

      • HockeyMinion

        I don’t believe that Sutter was ever expected to be a saviour. He is in Vancouver as a role model for the kids and a veteran hand for steadying the ship in rough waters. I don’t understand the need to see everything that happens with the Canucks as negative. In my opinion the media and a portion of the fanbase has been unfairly critical of the team for too long. I can remember the days when this wasn’t the case but now everything is picked apart and cast in a negative tone. I feel that this year has had its ups and downs but overall it has been fun watching the kids play and no matter what I won’t let the negativity influence my experience watching and reading about my favourite team!
        And for the sake of good taste please don’t compare the Canucks and
        Leafs again.

        • andyg

          Medea people feel that negativity sells. Not just in sports but in general. This should be exciting times for all Canuck fans.I enjoyed watching the Twins develop and will get a great deal of pleasure out of seeing the next core be assembled.

      • Fred-65

        I wasn’t comparing Sutter with Kesler skill or money. JB actually stated he believed Sutter would be a 2nd line centre…and if he does become a 2nd line centre that would be good value for sure. Sutter was a 3rd line centre in Pitts. However IMO Horvat has over taken Sutter and if that’s so (ie he’s going to play 3rd line ) …..maybe the money we pay him is not great value

  • andyg

    Absolutely stupid article. Pointless. A bit of info on Sutter was nice but even that was filled with editorial comments from a person who isn’t an NHL scout or talent evaluator. Good lord…what is going on with this site?!

  • Fred-65

    I wasn’t a fan of the trade, and less so GMJB handing Sutter such a long and lucrative contract before even lacing up his skates as a Canuck. That said, I think this article both overstates and understates Sutter’s return at the same time.

    It understates the important of getting back a veteran centre iceman, especially with Hank’s injury. Sutter’s return adds needed depth to the centre ice position. Horvat has played a ton of hard minutes this year and has 33 more minutes on the PK than the next Canuck forward.

    Sutter’s (or really any capable vet centre) return to take on some of those minutes is a big lift to a team who the last 2 games iced a centre ice squad aged 19,20,24,23 with combined NHl games under 275.Almost half of which are Bo’s.

    The overstatement is trying to label Sutter as some sort of 1 man savior. This was never the case. He was/is a stop gap as the team retools. Yes on a stupid contract but that is spilt milk at this point. The most hard core Benning or Sutter supporter would agree if they get 30-40 points from him on avg over the 5 years, that is pretty much what is expected. I don’t think anyone expected him to come in and drop a 50-60 point season.

  • Cageyvet

    Fun read! Also, anytime you read Bolland described as a “pus-bag…[ass] boil” is a good day!

    I don’t like the Sutter contract, but that Bolland contract is a school bus of children crashing into a massive tire fire…a hideously gruesome catastrophic tragedy!

    Thanks for the informative and positive article reminding us it could always be worse!

  • Fred-65

    I get it. You’re Leaf and Oilers fans and you want to vent.

    I’d want to vent too if my club bought into the “Summer of Analytics” and the result was continued futility and dogcrappery on the ice.

    But why trash Sutter’s play, just because the Leafs made a horrible, horrible decision on Bolland? The two events aren’t related at all.

    Brandon Sutter’s a solid 2nd or 3rd line centreman and performed reasonably well this season before the sports hernia.

    I certainly don’t expect Brandon to suddenly blossom into one of the league’s top centres, but I suspect our team will perform slightly better with him than without him. Especially on the dot and on the PK.

  • HockeyMinion

    I’m hoping that Sutter was playing through that sports hernia, and wasn’t playing to his potential. Hopefully he will be a difference maker once he wears off the rust.

    • andyg

      You may be right! He shows no signs of losing speed or mobility.

      What if he came from the Pens with a slight problem that got worse. He might be a number 2 center.

  • andyg

    Well, I’m glad that I didn’t hold my breath in regards to Sutter being able to return at the same capacity as he started the year.

    I’m not sure I would have been able to manage without breathing for the whole 11 minutes and 39 seconds it took Sutter to score.

    So, exactly how does crow taste? Just like chicken?

  • Cageyvet

    I don’t agree with the Leafs comparison at all. They had guys named Bolland and Kessel. We have guys named Sedin and Sutter. Nobody ever went wrong putting a Sutter on the ice. Stats aren’t everything, that Leafs team lacked character.

    As many have correctly pointed out, he’s value for the money, get over it, even scrubs get paid nowadays, and if the team can ever make the playoffs his value goes up.

  • Spiel

    I’d like to see an article written that revisits the Sutter trade. Lots of passive aggressive venom spewed at Benning by this site over that deal when it was made.

    Clendenning, Bonino + late 2nd for Sutter and an early 3rd.

    Clendenning has since been traded and waived, so obviously no loss.

    Bonino hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in Pittsburgh. 10 pts in 40 games, 15 minutes per night. The Canucks have had similar production from a combination of Linden Vey and Adam Cracknell. Not a big loss by any means.

  • Cageyvet

    I have some questions/concerns about using HERO charts in some situations. Like Sutters. For those three years, if his teammate was not on the ice with him, then they were most likely on the ice with either Crosby or Malkin. It would be extremely hard to have a positive impact on your teammates #s when they are playing with two of the best away from you.

  • Fred-65

    Clendenning is not as much about him but the asset we gave up in Forsling ( did u watch him in the WJC ?) . Clendenning faltered from the begining when put under pressure and certainly didn’t bring much physicality. Here’s where I have a problem…. WHO amongst the Pro scouts actually recommend players like Clendenning. How can you look at this guy and think any thing other than .. “I pass” and why is that scout still employed and then start thinking of Sbisa, Bartkowski, the loss of Corrado, Stop for a moment to wonder what would this defense look like had not Hutton who was way down their list of propsects and Biega a terrier from the AHL not come through. This management and it’s scouts avoided major red faces……by accident….by accident !! and no one says bleep