The Curious Case of Brandon Sutter: Style over Substance in the modern NHL

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And there it is ladies and gentlemen: the first true “head-scratcher” contract given out this offseason.

When the Vancouver Canucks traded Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening, and a 2nd round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Brandon Sutter last week, much of the focus was on the Penguins’ side of the deal. They had just significantly bolstered their forward depth by adding Bonino and quickly signing Eric Fehr to a 3 year contract. Little attention was given to the fact that the Canucks had made an unusual move for a player who would need to be immediately re-signed. That just changed.

On August 5th, the Canucks announced that they had signed Brandon Sutter to a 5 year $21.8 million contract with a yearly cap hit of $4.375 million, while lauding him as an important piece of their future. General manager Jim Benning went so far as to call Sutter a “foundation piece” on the day he made the trade. Clearly his intention is for Sutter to step in as the team’s 2nd line center; the replacement for Ryan Kessler who admirably filled that role behind Henrik Sedin for over half of a decade before his falling out with the franchise and subsequent trade to the Anaheim Ducks.

Sutter comes from a legendary hockey bloodline that has seen it’s name engraved eight times on the Stanley Cup. In the 1970s and 80s, Brandon’s father Brett and uncles Brian, Darryl, Duane, Rich and Ron made a name for themselves all playing at the same time in the NHL and attaining considerable success. Darryl Sutter just recently won two Stanley Cups as head coach of the LA Kings, extending their legacy into the modern era. The Sutters are essentially the Mannings of ice hockey and with that heritage comes a luster that can alter perception.

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The problem is, Brandon Sutter is a prime case of name trumping performance. He is anything but a 2nd line center and has played the role of 3rd line center his entire career. On top of that, he’s already 26 years old and is about to enter his prime thus making it unlikely that he will develop much further than he already has. His point production has been lackluster as he has never exceeded 33 points while playing on an offensively gifted Penguins team. Sutter’s career points per game is .37 through nearly 500 games. His strong suit is on the penalty kill where he effectively uses his face-off skills – he was 50.6% effective this season, good for second in Pittsburgh – and dumps the puck down the ice. He even managed to score 4 shorthanded goals this season as he helped the Penguins to the 3rd best penalty kill in the NHL at 84.8%. Sutter has also had some success on the power play, but expecting him to suddenly break out and reach a new level of play, significantly higher than anything he’s achieved in his career to this point, is simply unrealistic.

To further reinforce this point, let’s compare him to some other centers who will carry a similar cap hit next season. Sean Couturier, Colin Wilson, and Craig Smith are good contract comparables. Couturier is currently the Philadelphia Flyers’ developing 2nd line center while Smith and Wilson are the 2a and 2b centers for the Nashville Predators.

war-on-ice.com

war-on-ice.com

The graph (left) visualizes the statistical performance of the group. The horizontal axis illustrates Corsi for %, the vertical axis illustrates points per 60 minutes and the color scale shows the number of high-danger scoring chances against when on the ice (a higher number is not good). One look at the graph shows us that Sutter’s puck possession ability and point production are significantly worse than his comparables. His only positive, if you could call it that, is that he is slightly better than Couturier at preventing dangerous scoring opportunities, yet he is still bellow the average where he should be. To say that he is a defensively responsible center would be like unknowingly buying a pair of knockoff sunglasses. They look like the real thing but you quickly realize that you were screwed when the inferior plastic hinge falls apart.

Sutter’s individual stats don’t do him any justice so how about we check out his HERO chart to give us insight into his impact on his fellow teammates.

…and once again disappointment. Sutter comes up short in all puck possession related categories with regards to linemate performance. He barely passes as a 4th liner in CF60 and CF%. He’s not “Tanner Glass” bad, but he certainly doesn’t compare to Couturier, Wilson, or Smith who had relatively similar minutes to him and are being paid in the same salary bracket. To say he is overpaid by the Vancouver Canucks is an understatement.

Sutter is not the type of player that you trade an effective roster player, depth and a high draft pick for. He’s the type of player you throw into a deal with a draft pick to make it fair for the other team. He is in the same tier of centers such as Tommy Wingels, Chris Kelly, and Dominic Moore who make an average of $2.0 million less than him on a yearly basis.

Jim Benning has made a few questionable moves in his short tenure as GM of the Canucks, but none have been more head-scratching than his trade for and subsequent signing of Brandon Sutter. The fact that the Canucks organization sees such high value in such an ineffective player who is essentially just a penalty kill specialist, brings into question the talent analysis behind their reasoning. With the growth of analytics in today’s NHL, it’s hard to see how gross overpayments like this can occur. Apparently impulse and name can trump the use of logic and data.

So, what do you think?

Statistics courtesy of war-on-ice.com and ownthepuck.blogspot.com
Cap figures provided by hockeyscap.com

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