When the Canucks acquired him, Jim Benning described Brandon Sutter as a foundational piece, who would bring this team speed and edge come playoff time. Needless to say, that hasn’t worked out too well in several facets since it was suggested in July 2015; both in terms of his own play and, well, the team around him.
Hey, you never know. With four years remaining on his deal after this one, maybe they’ll be able to put that playoff theory to the test by the end of it. What’s done is done, though, so let’s just focus on the year that’s passed by.
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The first glance hints that, well, this was a pretty bog average year for him. The most important part is that, like in most of the season prior to last, he stayed healthy; but beyond that, it looks pretty bog standard. Still a depth scorer, still a bit of a drag on possession, not a frequent penalty taker, a competent but infrequent shooter, and someone who is capable of all the fun, gritty stuff but doesn’t do it with the utmost of frequency or urgency. He also was a fair bit more productive on the powerplay this year, but not to an extent justifies him as an often looked-to option.
The “possession drag” bit is still the key issue to much of the fanbase. Looking at how players who spent at least 50 minutes with him this year did, it’s not hard to see why:
The only forward on the Canucks roster who didn’t find themselves giving up a greater differential of shots against when playing regularly with Sutter was Jayson Megna and, well.. I don’t think I need to do much convincing to sell you on the idea that playing with Sutter is a better bet than being played with Michael Chaput, Joseph Crammarosa, or being completely out of place and unable to keep up with the Sedins. Alex Biega also sees a slight uptick, but it’s not significant and it may have more to do with who he was paired up with on the point.
That’s not to say that Sutter is complete to blame for his teammates’ struggles. Willie Desjardins was a big fan of putting Sutter out in defensive zone situations. That’s likely a combination of Sutter’s confusing yet existent reputation as a shutdown player, and the prowess that he’s shown in the faceoff dot. As you can see above, everybody that Sutter played started their shifts in more offensively-driven situations when they were away from him; almost all of them in double-digit percentages, and only Reid Boucher was close to even.
That’s a pretty clear “position to fail” for a player when you’re looking at their shot-based and production-based data. So is the fact that he was often matched up against the toughest opponents of the opposition; Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau, and Corey Perry are the players he spent the most time playing against at even strength this year, and it doesn’t get much better for a while as you scroll down the list of his opponents.
That’s not a complete and total get out of jail free card, though. Looking at other forwards in the league who put up big minutes and got frequently stuffed in the defensive zone, Sutter is still the biggest relative anchor of the group and manages to do so while playing for a team that was already getting its lunch handed to them on the whole. Other shutdown specialists manage to turn their bad situations into good ones by generating offence, a gear that Sutter just didn’t have this year and often doesn’t.
Ultimately, what we’re probably looking at here is a player that’s been in over their head since coming into town (and especially so this year), but won’t magically become a star player if that’s ever changed. The idea of unearthing another gear in his game that was sold when he was acquired seems extremely unlikely; he might just be a decent enough third line centre who is capable of playing supplementary tough minutes but shouldn’t be your main guy.
Which, as long as you’re not trying to meet up with the expectations of the trade, that’s completely and totally fine. There are redeemable qualities in him as a player; he’s mobile, he typically puts in the effort, he’s not afraid of getting into dangerous areas and he’s quite disciplined when he does so. The value of being a little bit better than the rest at the faceoff dot is overstated by the casual observer, but it’s still convenient to have someone who can boost your odds from time to time.
Next year, I’d like to see the Canucks experiment with spreading out the deployment of their centres, to get an idea of what Sutter would be to them in a more neutral situation. It would likely do wonders for his confidence and reputation, and while they’ll likely never be able to justify the initial investment, they can likely find a way to make him a valuable contributor rather than a player in over his head. He’ll never be foundational, but he can likely compliment the foundation, whenever that may arrive, in the right situation.