“When the games mean something, that’s when he’s at his best.”
That was Vancouver Canucks General Manager Jim Benning’s selling point when the trade was announced in July of 2015 that sent Nick Bonino to Pittsburgh in exchange for Brandon Sutter. The latter was expected to provide additional speed relative to Bonino, greater shutdown ability, and an opportunity to lessen the pressure on the then-20-year-old Bo Horvat at center.
Sutter was a two-time twenty-goal scorer, and in the 2014 playoffs, he scored five goals in 13 games. He quickly signed a five-year extension, set to begin in 2016 with an AAV of $4.375 million.
The Canucks required five additional seasons to qualify for the playoffs, three of which saw Sutter sidelined for extensive periods with injuries. However, 2020 finally set the stage for him to demonstrate his value as a playoff performer.
To put it simply, his play nowhere near justified the $4.375 million cap hit. When one considers the cap crunch that the Canucks now face and the current expectations for the team, Sutter is an obvious candidate to be moved. He currently has a modified no-trade clause that protects him from being sent to 15 teams of his choice.
When one considers the play of other roster members relative to their respective cap hits, however, there would be more to lose from moving him than, for example, Loui Eriksson or Jay Beagle.
To achieve a sense of what Sutter provides, we will examine footage from one of his most recent performances: Game 5 of the 2020 Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Brandon Sutter’s performance vs VGK (Sep. 1, 2020):
As far as his defensive responsibilities are concerned, Brandon Sutter provides fairly strong support in his own zone. He is at his best as a back-checker through the neutral zone. Back-checking was one of the Canucks’ weakest aspects during the 2019-20 regular season. Sutter is, thus, valuable in that regard. He is a proficient stick checker and does well to impede the opposing puck carrier’s progress.
He often stays up high in the offensive zone, and in our footage sample, both of his linemates were often more engaged along the end boards in the o-zone than he was. This is part of the Canucks’ forechecking strategy, which generally only assigns two forwards to battle for pucks along the boards.
As a result, he tends to wait above the goal line looking to receive a pass. Although he was able to generate 1.73 shots per game during the 2019-20 regular season, he averaged only 1.12 shots per game in this year’s playoffs. After scoring eight goals and 17 points in 44 games in 2019-20, there was a sharp drop in his ability to score goals and even to generate shots on net.
Brandon Sutter was, more or less, an offensive abyss in the postseason.
Aside from a timely two-game scoring streak in Games Five and Six against St. Louis in which he recorded four assists, he had a very quiet campaign in terms of his offensive contributions. He scored one goal and seven points in 17 playoff games, but was pointless in 13 of 17 matches.
He also experienced a decline from the average ice time of 16:02 he received in the eleven games between Game Two against Minnesota and Game Two against Vegas to just 10:50 per game in the final five matches against the Golden Knights. This coincided with Tyler Toffoli’s return to the lineup. During much of the second round, Sutter logged fourth-line minutes: 10th among forwards after Game Two.
Being the third-man high in the offensive zone has its drawbacks. Against the Golden Knights, who often outnumber their opponent along the boards, the Canucks struggled to apply effective pressure in the Vegas zone. Being so far back, however, Sutter was able to support his defenceman when the play started to come back into the Vancouver zone.
He tracks the opposition well, and he is still a quick enough skater to adequately pressure the opponent.
As a defence-first and increasingly defence-only player, Brandon Sutter often races down the ice and positions himself in an effective manner to disrupt the neutral-zone transition of the opposing forwards. He takes away passing lanes from the opponent, and he is one of the Canucks’ key penalty killers. The opposition only scored two goals against the Canucks in the 42:54 of time he spent on the penalty kill, whereas the Tyler Motte-Jay Beagle combination allowed nine PP goals against during their approximately 60 minutes of PK TOI.
Noteworthy is the comparison between Beagle and Sutter against the Vegas Golden Knights. Based on his track record with the Canucks, Sutter’s lack of physicality is to be expected. Beagle’s is less so, as he recorded 5.99 hits per 60 in the regular season, third among regular forwards behind only Motte and Jake Virtanen. Even though Beagle averaged more hits than Sutter during the playoff campaign, 8.36 per 60 to be exact, both he and Sutter threw nine hits each against Vegas. Sutter averaged 6.36 per 60 in that series, while Beagle averaged 6.18 — ninth and tenth among Canucks forwards, respectively.
During the regular season, Sutter recorded 18 hits in 44 games, an average of 1.65 hits per 60 minutes of play. During the playoffs, he recorded 4.97 hits per 60, slightly above Bo Horvat’s average of 4.96 but still just 11th among Canucks forwards.
Overall, his physicality in the playoffs increased, though so too did many others’. As the playoffs progressed, Sutter threw more body checks, to the point of being more physical than Jay Beagle, but not to the point of being a “physical player”. His increases were proportional to the efforts of his teammates. One could also perceive this as a criticism of Beagle’s reduced physicality against Vegas relative to the Canucks’ other forwards.
Our Stephan Roget noted Beagle’s struggles. Indeed, it seemed at times that the Motte-Beagle unit was carried by Motte’s full-throttle, smart, aggressive play. Beagle’s contract possesses an AAV of $3 million and will remain on the Canucks’ books for another two seasons unless the organization moves him. If the Canucks have the option to move Beagle before Sutter, they should perhaps consider doing so.
A less controversial topic: Sutter’s takeaway ability. He was one of the team’s leaders in that category.
Tyler Motte, not surprisingly, led all Canucks skaters with 3.97 takeaways per 60. Right behind Motte was Sutter, who recorded an average of 2.98 takeaways per 60. For additional context, ranked third was Quinn Hughes with 2.16 per 60; ninth was Beagle with 1.39 per 60.
Compared to all NHL forwards who have logged at least seven games — approximately one full series — of postseason hockey in 2020, Sutter remains 11th in takeaways per 60 at the time of this article’s publication while Motte is currently the league leader.
Sutter was also a middle-of-the-pack player as far as giveaways were concerned, eighth among Canucks forwards in that category.
For the longest time, Canucks fans have clamoured for the organization to rid itself of this player. However, the heart of the issue is strictly that he continues to be overpaid for the role he provides. Sutter was signed as a middle-six center whose responsibility was to soften Bo Horvat’s transition up the depth chart. The organization has long since moved beyond that stage.
He provides little secondary scoring. The team must consider upgrades to its third line in order to provide additional scoring depth. One goal in seventeen games is simply not enough offence for a middle-six forward, nor should a player of that ilk be pointless in 13 of 17 playoff games. At 31 years of age, he remains a strong defensive contributor, but it would only make sense to retain him beyond 2021 at a significantly lower price and with a fourth-line role in mind.
As a defensive-minded player, he had a respectable playoff campaign. He and Tyler Motte were the team’s two bottom-six pillars in this year’s playoffs. Within the context of the four-million-dollar cap hit handcuffing the team, though, Brandon Sutter’s campaign was a disappointment. Whereas some players — Motte, for instance — elevated their game during the postseason, Sutter’s playoff debut for the Canucks saw a decline in the offensive elements of his game, and while his intensity level increased, it was not enough to distinguish him as a notable playoff performer.