Brandon Sutter isn’t a big fan of change but he might have no other choice.
Though the veteran centre has played for three different teams, he has never hit free agency in his career. When he was traded from the Carolina Hurricanes to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was still a restricted free agent. Then, when he was traded from the Penguins to the Vancouver Canucks, general manager Jim Benning signed him to a five-year contract extension a year before his contract expired and before he even played a single game with the Canucks.
After six years with the Canucks and at the age of 32, Sutter is a pending unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.
“I've never really been in this situation before,” said Sutter. “It's different but I don't really love change too much. I like to be where I am.”
In other words, Sutter doesn’t want to go anywhere and would love to re-sign with the Canucks.
“For myself, the plan from the start of the year...was to stay here and be part of the group here, so that priority hasn't changed,” he said. “I’ve loved my time here and I want it to continue.”
Whether it does continue or not might depend on how much Sutter fears change and how badly he wants to stay in Vancouver.
One of the Canucks’ biggest needs heading into the offseason is at centre. Unless they plan on using J.T. Miller in the middle — a distinct possibility — they’ll need to find a third-line centre via trade or free agency.
The problem is that Sutter isn’t a third-line centre anymore.
Sutter is still excellent in the faceoff circle and can still kill penalties. The trouble is at 5-on-5, where Sutter consistently gets out-shot and out-scored. To be fair, he has been used in a heavily defensive role, taking a ton of defensive zone faceoffs with far fewer opportunities to start in the offensive zone.
Stilll, the Canucks can’t return with Sutter as their third-line centre again if they want to take a step forward. As a fourth-line centre, however, Sutter is a bit more intriguing.
Upgrading from Jay Beagle
Sutter would be an upgrade on Jay Beagle as a fourth-line centre and would be a more reliable option than someone like Tyler Graovac, who stepped in at centre towards the end of the season because of injuries. Head coach Travis Green values bottom-six forwards who can contribute on the penalty kill and they don’t have any centres in the system that fit that profile and could contribute next season.
Looking at his isolated impact heat map from HockeyViz, Sutter looks slightly below league average in the offensive and defensive zones.
Honestly, slightly below-average would be a major upgrade on Jay Beagle, who is well below league average.
Perhaps Sutter’s results with being so badly out-shot and out-scored is because he’s been asked to do too much. Perhaps in a fourth-line role, Sutter would look a little bit better.
The Canucks don’t just need reliable penalty killers in their bottom-six — they need scoring.
“In order to win in this league and to win in the playoffs...not only do your top lines have to score but you have to have that depth in your lineup,” said Bo Horvat at the end of the season.
Sutter was one of the few bottom-six forwards this season that actually contributed on offence. He was seventh on the team — right behind the top-six forwards — with nine goals in 43 games. He may not be much of a playmaker, but Sutter can put the puck in the net.
The question is, what is that worth? How much value does Sutter hold in staying in the same place? What number would make sense for the Canucks to bring Sutter back, assuming it’s as the fourth-line centre, pushing Beagle to the press box or the AHL?
How much of a pay cut is Sutter willing to take?
Contract projections from Evolving Hockey suggest that the most likely contract for Sutter if he re-signs with the Canucks would be a one-year deal worth $1.064 million. Those projections are based on past contracts for similar players.
That’s a deal that could make sense for the Canucks. It’s about the same value as the cap hit relief for burying Beagle in the minors, so it wouldn’t cost the Canucks any more against the cap to upgrade from Beagle to Sutter on the fourth line. As much as Canucks fans might want to move on from Sutter, there is a familiarity and a comfort level there for the team, and he is part of the team’s leadership group, wearing an “A” since 2016.
The question is whether Sutter would be willing to take that kind of pay cut or if he would rather explore free agency to see if another team would be willing to pay him a little bit more.
Sutter certainly hasn’t been what Jim Benning hoped he would be when he traded for him but that doesn’t mean he can’t play a role for the Canucks now. If they still want to have a veteran presence in the bottom-six, the Canucks could do worse than Sutter on the fourth line.
If not, Sutter will at least leave with some good memories.
“The fun part was the progress that we have made over the course of six years and some of the guys we have in the room now,” said Sutter. “The young guys have come a long way and you hope that you've helped them and they've helped you and you've been a part of it.”