Brandon Sutter Is Ill-Suited In Current Role

Few players confound the mind the way Brandon Sutter does. Year after year, Sutter appears to be making an impact at both ends of the ice, and year after year, his underlying metrics paint an entirely different picture. Since his first full season in 2009-2010, Sutter’s posted respectable raw counting totals, with paltry rate stats and shot metrics.

2016 has been no different for Sutter, who’s currently on pace to best his career best of 40 in a season. Sutter’s performance comes with a pair of caveats, though. First, a large chunk of that offence is coming by way of secondary assists, which players have limited control over and are highly volatile. Second, Sutter’s breakout offensive performance is having a significant negative impact on his line’s solvency at even-strength.

For the better part of a year now, I’ve been willing to give this experiment a shot. But it’s time to face facts: this just isn’t working.

Sedin linemates

Since 2008, the Sedins have skated for over 100 minutes of TOI with 13 different wingers. With 12 of those wingers, their line has been above 51% in shot shares. The current line combination with Brandon Sutter is currently sitting at just under 47 and a half percent, four percentage points clear of the next worse linemate, Steve Bernier. The Sedins and Brandon Sutter have been Vancouver’s worst top line by shot shares of the behind the net era, and it’s not close. That is, in a word, bad. And it looks even worse when you include line combinations that don’t feature a Sedin.

bad lines

So far this season, the Canucks are getting outshot by a larger margin with their first line on the ice than their third line was getting outshot in 2011. Yes, the team’s quality has rapidly deteriorated since then, but no matter how highly you think of the 2011 team, there’s no reason that even the 2016 incarnation of the Sedin twins shouldn’t be outperforming Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres.

And before you go blaming this on age related decline, consider that Brandon Sutter is the Canucks’ single worst player by even-strength shot-attempt metrics currently on the roster, and that’s including the over 170 minutes he’s played with Henrik and Daniel at 5-on-5.

He’s also had a negative effect on the twins’ individual point production. Both Henrik and Daniel have produced about 0.8 more points per 60 minutes of ice time with Loui Eriksson, while Jannik Hansen has had a positive impact on Daniel’s point production, and a slightly negative impact on Henrik during their brief time together this season. It’s also worth noting that with the twins, both Jannik Hansen and Loui Eriksson have produced significantly more P/60 than Sutter has.

So, we’ve established that Sutter with the Sedin twins isn’t really working at evens, but what about the powerplay? Sutter’s a strong, right-handed shot, surely his skill set must be helping the Canucks produce at 5-on-4. 

Well, not exactly. It’s more or less the same story. Since the beginning of the behind the net era, only Steve Bernier has been a worse contributor of offense playing with Henrik and Daniel at 5-on-4. He’s also had the third-worst impact on their individual scoring rates, behind Bernier and Pavol Demitra. It’s an issue that extends back before his time in Vancouver. Over 200 skaters have had more than 500 minutes of ice-time with the man advantage since Sutter’s first full season, and in that period of time Sutter ranks in the bottom 25% in individual P/60. 

While Sutter’s always been a better player by the eye test than by underlying metrics, simply watching him play with Henrik and Daniel can reveal a lot about why Brandon Sutter isn’t a good fit on that line. At first glance, the decision to put him there makes a weird sort of sense. He may be a natural centre, but he’sgot an enviable set of inputs. As a right-handed shot who’s shown half-decent goal-scoring ability, he has the speed to give the Sedins the added option of dumping and chasing when entering the offensive zone. That’s more or less the same skill set that’s made Jannik Hansen so successful with them. But Sutter’s lacking in the one obvious element that made that line so effective: the ability to contribute to the cycle. 

Oftentimes, when you watch Henrik and Daniel try to create offense in the opponent’s zone, Sutter gets left completely out of the equation while the two of them move the puck back and forth and cycle around the net. While Sutter may give the Sedins’ ability to score off the rush a slight bump, he’s hindering their ability to produce offense when they have zone time, which is by far the duo’s biggest strength. It’s also something that Loui Eriksson could help with, in spite of the way he’s struggled at times this season. 

Story 1 (8)

Placing Brandon Sutter in Jannik Hansen’s stead has proved to be, at best, a pale imitation. The Canucks would likely be much better served placing Loui Eriksson on that line until Hansen is able to return. It’s clear the arrangement isn’t benefiting any party, particularly Sutter. The line he centred with Markus Granlund and Jannik Hansen was actually performing well above expectations before Willie Desjardins broke it up, hovering around a 50.5% Corsi For.

The Canucks ostensible second line at the moment of Chaput, Eriksson, and Granlund has been getting their teeth kicked in at even strength, so it’s not as though mixing up the lines couldn’t be of more benefit to the team as a whole. If Willie Desjardins were to base his top-nine solely off which lines had performed best in terms of even-strength shot-share percentage, it would look like this (once Jannik Hansen returns):

Daniel Sedin Henrik Sedin Loui Eriksson
Sven Baertschi Bo Horvat Alex Burrows
Markus Granlund Brandon Sutter Jannik Hansen

This configuration seems like common sense. The Canucks signed a former 30-goal scorer supposedly to play RW on their top line, and are playing a defensive centre in his stead. Considering the fact that Sutter’s actually done a better job of keeping his head above water on another line, that seems borderline insane. 

Playing Sutter at wing makes a large portion of his skill set redundant, diminishing his defensive responsibilities as well as eliminating the need for him to take face-offs. We can quibble about whether or not Sutter is overpaid, or if his underlying numbers suggest better options might have been available at a fraction of the cost, but the fact remains that Sutter was brought in to fill a specific role, and thus far he hasn’t been deployed in a manner that’s consistent with that role. If the team truly wants to compete this season, they need to be putting players in a position to succeed. With Brandon Sutter, that simply hasn’t been the case.

  • Donald's Hat Trick

    Interesting article. Would anyone care to float some theories as to why a coach might continue playing a center and cornerstone piece on wing with the Sedins even after his boss signs a more accomplished winger and fellow Swede?

    Desjardins has been quoted as saying that Eriksson doesn’t work on that line because he leaves the defense too exposed, but obviously that assumes possession has been lost.

    • This is a perfect illustration as to why Desjardins needs to go. Absolutely no ability to adapt and is ramming a system that doesn’t work down the players’ throats.

      Eriksson does his best when he’s parked in front of the net, scoring garbage goals but Desjardins wants the third forward high to cover the defence (e.g. so they can pinch). The Sedins play a cycle game, they need the third forward down low to open up the defence and get set for a shot. If it’s just the Sedins because the RW is high, the cycle is obvious and it’s easy to shut down.

      So what does Desjardins do? Adapt his strategy to suit the two future Hall-of-Famers and the $6M wingman or is it better to their 2C on wing and bump Eriksson to 3RW? This is pathetic. It’s obvious why we’re a basement team, because Desjardins expects the league to conform to his expectations.

      • LTFan

        Desjardins does not run the power play. I believe it is Doug Jarvis. He was involved in the Bruin’s power play for a number of years when with Boston. So you can get off Willie’s case on this one.

        • That’s another reason to fire Desjardins. It’s his third season and the power play still stinks. Why? Over reliance on the Sedins and predictable plays. Desjardins is the head coach and is therefore responsible for everything that happens on the ice. If it doesn’t work, it’s his job to make it work, not shirk his responsibility and throw an assistant under the bus.

  • apr

    Well, he’s fourth in team scoring – and has more points than Bonino. Also, Hansen is hurt who would otherwise play with the Sedins. You are not breaking up that Bo line, and Erickson and Granlund seem like they have mojo. So until Hansen comes back, who would you play with the Sedins? Megna? Overpaid? Ladd is overpaid. Joffrey Lupal, and all of those other useless players that the Leafs have buried in the minors are overpaid.

  • Steampuck

    How many faceoffs has Sutter taken in his time with the Sedins? Is this simply a side-of-ice thing? I’m not excusing the deployment, which is odd–especially if it persists after Hansen returns. But I’m trying to understand it.

    That two-man cycle is the most noticeable feature of this configuration, though. Sutter has so many tools, but they look woefully out of place with the Sedins…

    • Bud Poile

      Sutter is tied with Bo for taking the most faceoffs on this team.Bo has a slight edge in % but Sutter is playing against first line NHL centers.

      Hank is being used much lessnow and his % is 49.5.

      When Hansen gets healthy he can go back with the twins but Hank is showing his age and he is being supported.

      Some have yet to acknowledge the reality of the situation.

      http://puckbase.com/stats/faceoff-percentage

  • chinook

    When the Sedins were in their prime scoring lots of goals hockey writers said they could turn anyone, even Anson Carter or Alex Burrows, into a 20 or 30-goal scorer. Nowadays, late in their careers, hockey writers say the Sedins need the just-right player or else they can’t score.

    I feel it too, time is cruel.

    • Chris the Curmudgeon

      Actually, my recollection was that the search for an adequate winger who could keep up with the twins spanned multiple seasons, with a few flashes of success there (Jason King, Magnus Arvedson), but only Carter (for one season) and ultimately Burrows ever showing as a good long term fit. Sure, there have been some good combos since, but the idea that the twins are offensive kingmakers for any and all comers is a relatively recent one. Let’s give Anson and Alex a little credit here too, both were solid players capable of handling a difficult workload.

  • Steamer

    Based upon 50+ years of playing, coaching, managing and refereeing hockey…Desjardins’ deployments are bewildering, confusing, illogical. Megna, Gaunce, Skille on the ice in final minute of a one-goal game? Gudbranson on the ice instead of Stecher? Rolling 4 lines when playing catch-up? Stiffing your 3rd line’s time so you can get the 4th liners out there? Playing Dorsett over Sedins ( prior to injury )when down a goal = a coach in way over his head. Prediction: Benning will soon sacrifice his coach to save his own rear end.

  • birdie boy

    Willie or wont he be here next year ,i am pretty sure having megna chaput and skille in your lineup makes you a weak team .It really is hard to defend willie with his deployment of players,is Lebate that mush of a downgrade to those three,kid can skate loves to hit and fights , last time i checked dorsett was out for awhile ,remember when preseason was here and managment was preaching the best people will stick funny i remember lebate sticking out more than most.c ya willie

  • OMAR49

    I have to agree with this assessment regarding Sutter although, in my opinion the Canucks would be better of with Hansen playing with the Sedins and Eriksson playing with Sutter.

    In defense of Desjardin the team has managed to put together a fairly reasonable record since the 9 game losing streak despite not having Edler, Tanev, and Hansen in the line-up. Given what he has had to work with he has done OK.

  • krutov

    i’ve got no problem with trying someone else. however, i really think the problem is the sedins are not the same players they were so these comparisons are not helpful.

    my eye tells me sutter is obviously not a fit for peak era sedins. however, he is playing with 2016 sedins who earlier in the season my eye told me couldn’t play with erikkson either. 2016 sedins either need a patrick kane so they can keep possession longer or a player who can back them defensively.

    the reality is the sedins are turning over the puck far more often than they used to, and holding the puck for less time. they are now at the point where the defence cannot afford to pinch to support them which gives them less options and leads to less possession and less room and basically a death spiral.

    to turn this around the sedins would need a dynamic player who could help them get and keep the puck. i don’t think we have one other than horvat and he seems to have zero chemistry with them (to put it politely).

    the sedin problems all happened before sutter appeared on their line. sutter was deployed to protect the twins from themselves. he may not be great for them, but he may well be the best option on the roster to allow them to still do their thing as best as they can still do their thing.

  • Locust

    The current Canucks only have 3/4 of an NHL roster.

    The writers scream for a rebuild.

    The writers scream for the team to be competitive.

    The writers scream…….

    • Jackson McDonald

      Sigh…

      If you can’t see the flaw in this line of thinking I’m not sure what to tell you. This isn’t a case of being fickle about the team’s direction. For about 2 and a half years, we’ve stated that a tear-down rebuild was probably the Canucks’ best option. They chose not to go that route. Their intention from day one this season was to make the playoffs. This is not a development year. So, you have to judge based on their stated goals. If the team goes in the tank and finishes 30th, that isn’t a victory for the rebuild, it’s a massive failure to achieve what they set out to do this season.

      • Bud Poile

        Sure,tear down rebuild.How about ‘you’ and your CA colleagues putting up ‘your’ money in the case ‘your’ plan drags out five,seven,nine years and the franchise enters fiscal jeopardy.

        Easy to “sigh” and endlessly complain behind a computer screen,quite another to work 14 hours a day and back your words with your own cash or career.

          • Dirk22

            I assume you’re implying that a rebuild will drive the owners to have to sell like the Griffiths had to back in the 90’s? Even though this has no relevance to that situation. Carry on then.

          • Bud Poile

            Do enlighten us some day,Dirk.Let us know when you put a few hundred million on the line.

            Maybe you and the pro-tanking CA writers can all pool your pocket money together and fire everybody.

            That will solve your whine fest,at least.

          • Dirk22

            K – I’ll work on that.

            In the meantime I’m sure you’ll buck up for the 30% drop in ticket sales, the 45% drop in tv ratings and the biggest percentage drop in overall franchise value out of any NHL team over the past year. You and the anti-rebuild society should be able to cover that.

          • Bud Poile

            TV contracts are long term deals. Aquilini’s aren’t selling today.

            The Canucks are rebuilding.

            So sad you don’t like it.

            Miller and the D looked good tonight,huh?

            Building from the net out……

      • Whackanuck

        Does it matter if the team finishes bottom five intentionally or because it set higher goals and fails? Sometimes one knows the odds of failure are high and one still strives for winning. I think there’s some merit to exceeding expectations in the face of adversity. Of the Canucks 26 games, 15 have been a one-goal loss or win and they’ve been blown out only once, 7-2 by the Rangers. They are interesting games IMO and reflective of an improving team. It is debatable if, even with cashing in on extra draft picks by trading more veterans that the team would be better or even as-good THIS year. With more marginal players like Vrbata, Skille or Bartkowski filling the roster instead of Burrows, Hansen or Sbisa it’s likely they would be worse.

        The only argument here is that by having more prospects in junior or college, being Cup competitive is inevitable. Is it?

      • Not Dressed For Tonight's Game

        Yes, true. But, not quite that black and white. Would you agree with this?

        Everyone here is always using the Panthers as the comparison on the correct way to run a team. The Panthers finished with 103 points last year and their goal was to go further in the playoffs than last year. They are trying to do that by going all in on an analytic approach. They are currently at a 23.9 chance of making the playoffs. So, you have to judge based on their stated goals. If they fail to make the playoffs,it is a massive failure to achieve what they set out to do and a massive failure for the analytics approach?

        I think your comment is over-arching, as is my scenario.

      • DJ_44

        This statement basically sums up one line of thinking about a re-build.

        A team can (and many do) rebuild (or re-tool or whatever) and still have the objective of making the playoffs. In fact, I think every team starts the year with that objective (or a similar version “meaningful games in March”).

        To go on to say this is not a development year because they have a stated objective of making the playoffs is bizarre logic; as if teams or players will not develop if they strive for wins and playoff contention. This is the only way they develop.

        If by development you mean basic hockey and life skills — then the NHL is not a development league, plain and simple. That is what the AHL is for.

        The team is in a re-build and development process.

        Perhaps an interesting article is where the Canucks are, projected over three years. Ages, salaries, prospects, etc.

        I get frustrated watching some of the games. Last night in Jersey was one of them. I do not think this team will be better served with a full re-build approach, since this this approach has failed more often then it succeeded. That gap between failure and success will become wider with the newly instituted lottery system.

  • Friendly Neighbourhood Canucks fan

    Sutter plays with Sedins and nothing happens

    Eriksson gets even strength shift with Sedins and scores

    WD refuses to acknowledge a goal has been scored and puts Sutter back.

    You know for a foundation piece who was supposed to be a 2nd line center or at least paid like one, being an anchor on the first line doesn’t seem ideal. Henrik is handling his own in the faceoffs and Eriksson is no slouch defensively. I get that they may want to spread out the lines but WD just needs to admit that Horvat line is 2nd line and drop Sutter down to the 3rd line, he worked well with Granlund. Then when Hansen comes back you can put him with that line or switch him with Eriksson. Either way, WD needs to pull his head outta his ass

  • Rodeobill

    If JV gets his sheet together, put him with the Sedins! He hits, forechecks, is a shooter, and great at puck retrieval, and he listens to the Sedins, probably grew up a fan of theirs. Probably would do wonders for his confidence and development too. I am really curious to see how that would go. Otherwise Eriksson or Hansen. Good article.

  • TD

    Why would you compare seasons back to 2008 when the Sedins were in their prime? A more valuable comparison would be all the combinations from last year and this year. Even with less minutes played with which to compare, it would provide a more relevant picture of the effect Sutter was having on the Sedins.