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In defence of Brandon Sutter...analytically

When you look back at a season as bad as the Canucks just had, a certain amount of negativity is unavoidable.
Brandon Sutter

When you look back at a season as bad as the Canucks just had, a certain amount of negativity is unavoidable. It’s hard to spin a 30-win season with a franchise low in goals into something positive and, really, why would you want to?

But there’s one player that has had an unfair share of negativity heaped upon him: Brandon Sutter.

Sutter is a polarizing figure within Canucks fandom, mainly because his primary virtues are everything that the analytics movement within hockey has started to devalue. Faceoff wins, leadership, the occasional goal: none of these matter much when your on-ice results paint a picture of a puck possession anchor who gives up more than he gets.

There’s also the Sutter name, which perhaps suggests more grit and leadership than is actually there. Witness the backlash when he suggested that Nikolay Goldobin wasn’t gritty enough because he didn’t go into the corners and the hard areas to win pucks: a lot of people pointed out that Sutter himself doesn’t win a lot of pucks along the boards either. A lot of his “grit” is projected onto him by his name and size.

It doesn’t help matters that Sutter is paid like a second-line centre, but performs more like a third-line centre. You’re basically paying for the name brand of “Sutter” when there are cheaper and better options. He’s the Beats headphones of NHL centres.

Here’s the thing: even if Sutter isn’t as good as old-school hockey folks seem to think, he’s also not as bad as new-school hockeyrati suggest.

When put in the right situation, Sutter is a valuable hockey player. It’s just that those situations are a bit more limited than you might like.

For instance, there is no way in hell that Sutter should be on the first power play unit. The man advantage plays against pretty much all of Sutter’s strengths. While he has a hard and accurate shot, he doesn’t have a quick release, making him a poor trigger man. He’s not effective in the cycle, so he doesn’t contribute much to puck movement, and he’s never been particularly good in front of the net.

And yet he spent all of last season on that unit, finishing third behind only the Sedins in power play ice time.

Where he is effective, however, is on the penalty kill. I like to look at unblocked shot attempts (fenwick) when it comes to the penalty kill and, at 5-on-4, only Loui Eriksson allowed fewer against than Sutter among Canucks forwards. Among the 114 forwards who played at least 100 minutes at 5-on-4 last season, Sutter and Eriksson were 32nd and 33rd in fenwick against per 60 minutes.

That doesn’t make him one of the best penalty killers in the league, by any means, but it does suggest that he’s legitimately good at the job. Unfortunately, 114th on that list was Bo Horvat, who either needs to significantly improve at killing penalties or needs to be kept off the penalty kill altogether.

The majority of hockey is played at 5-on-5, however, so an above average ability in shorthanded situations doesn’t justify a spot on the roster.

And Sutter does not look good at 5-on-5 at first glance. Among Canucks forwards with at least 450 5-on-5 minutes last season, Sutter is better than only Jayson Megna when it comes to corsi percentage, fenwick percentage, and shots on goal percentage.

That matches the eye test pretty well: when Sutter was on the ice, he was frequently stuck in the defensive zone. Even when you take into account that he started a lot of his shifts in the defensive zone, his inability to gain possession of the puck and move it up ice stands out.

And yet, when you look at line combinations, two of the lines he played on where among the Canucks’ best in puck possession last season.

That may come as a surprise, particularly when you see who one of those linemates was: Jayson Megna. When Sutter played with Megna and Markus Granlund, they were an excellent shutdown line in terms of preventing shot attempts, but also put up decent numbers offensively, resulting in a 54.59% corsi percentage in over 118 minutes together as a line.

Right behind them is the line of Sutter, Eriksson, and Granlund, who put up a 52.43% corsi percentage in 171+ minutes together.

You might have noticed something about those two combinations, however: Markus Granlund. There’s a strong argument to be made that Granlund drives puck possession. Every Canucks forward that played more than 40 minutes at 5-on-5 with Granlund last season posted a better corsi percentage with him than without him.

And yet, Granlund posted his best corsi percentage not with the Sedins, but with Sutter and Megna, despite starting a lot more in the defensive zone with the latter linemates.

With that in mind, it seems clear that Sutter can thrive at 5-on-5, but only if he’s matched with a winger that can drive puck possession. That certainly limits his usefulness, but it doesn’t negate it entirely. His ability to win faceoffs, skate with the puck in transition, and shoot off the rush makes him a useful complementary player.

There’s one other statistical oddity I found when it comes to Sutter: in the 11 Canucks games for which Corey Sznajder tracked passing data last season, Sutter was surprisingly effective when it came to passing. He had the second highest rate of primary shot assists behind Henrik Sedin, ie. the pass leading directly to a shot on goal.

He was also not far behind Bo Horvat when it came to creating what Sznajder and the Passing Project call Dangerous Scoring Chances: shots after passes across the slot or from behind the net. Sutter was sixth on the team behind the Sedins, Granlund, Eriksson, and Horvat.

That data suggests that Sutter might not be as bad a passer as the eye test might suggest, while also placing him firmly into a third-line role behind the more effective forwards ahead of him. That sounds about right.

Essentially, my defence of Sutter is this: if you place him in a possession to succeed — on the third-line with possession-driving wingers, on the penalty kill, and on the bench during power plays — he can be an effective centre. Put him in situations for which he is ill-suited — on the first line with the Sedins, on the top power play unit, or with mediocre wingers — he will look absolutely atrocious.

It seems pretty certain that Sutter will be on the Canucks next season — his contract looks pretty difficult to trade and he’s unlikely to be exposed in the expansion draft — than it will be up to new coach Travis Green to find a role best suited for his skillset.