Brandon Sutter was enjoying his offseason like most 23-year-old hockey players would on a Friday night in the summer, spending some time hanging out at a buddy's apartment without a care in the world.
That's when Sutter's phone rang. It was Ron Francis, vice president of hockey operations for the Carolina Hurricanes, delivering the news that the center had been traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, along with a prospect and the eighth pick in that night's NHL Draft, for center Jordan Staal.
It was the first time Sutter had been traded at any level during his hockey career, and it hit him like a sledgehammer in the chest.
"It caught me by surprise. Your heart kind of stops and you take a deep breath," Sutter said during a conference call Monday, the first time he spoke to the media about the trade. "It's a feeling I'm not used to. It was a tough couple days. It was more of a shock than anything. I really didn't see it coming at all.
"Now I'm a little bit relaxed and getting kind of excited about it."
Sutter has some big skates to fill in Pittsburgh, skates that Penguins GM Ray Shero believed were worth $60 million over 10 seasons. That was the offer from Shero that Staal rejected not long before he was dealt to Carolina. Staal, also 23, put up career numbers despite missing 20 games due to injury this past season, posting 25 goals and 25 assists playing behind all-world centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Playing the role of the third-line, checking center is nothing new for Sutter. He held his own offensively while trying to keep the opposition's top scorers in check the past three seasons, averaging 17 goals and 17 assists over that time.
Sutter knows he'll be compared to Staal, but that's not how he's choosing to see the situation.
"I'm coming in to do what I've done. I'm my own player," Sutter said. "I don't feel like I'm here to replace anyone. Jordan's a great player and a player you want to be like. Hopefully, one day I can try to find that level he was at in terms of offensive numbers. I think I can. I feel like the Penguins had to make a deal and I'm glad they picked me. I'm going to a winning team where there's opportunity. They chose me because they wanted me. I'm trying to look at it that way."
Based on what Sutter said during the conference call, there are two things that excite him about coming to Pittsburgh -- the chance to play for a team that's almost a lock to make the postseason when the puck is dropped in October, and an opportunity to display his skill on a deeper squad.
In four seasons with the Hurricanes, Sutter never had a chance to experience the playoffs. The Huntington, N.Y., native was in the minors when the club reached the postseason in 2009 and was part of the 2010-11 team that lost out on the No. 8 seed by losing its final game of the regular season.
The Penguins have made the postseason six straight seasons and haven't finished with fewer than 99 points or worse than fifth in the Eastern Conference over that time. Sutter knows he's following two of the best centers in the NHL, but the idea of lacing up his skates in late April and beyond more than makes up for it.
"I'm four years into my career now and I'm still yet to play in a playoff game," Sutter said. "For me, I'm at a point now where it's about winning. That's what I want to be there for and I want to help with that. What goes on with the lineup over the course of a couple years isn't in my hands. With the two big guys down the middle, playing behind them is going to be a great opportunity for me. You never know with injuries how things get shaken up through the season. I just want to win some games."
"I'm four years into my career now and I'm still yet to play in a playoff game. For me, I'm at a point now where it's about winning. That's what I want to be there for and I want to help with that. ... I just want to win some games."
-- Penguins' forward Brandon Sutter
Sutter, taken with the 11th pick in the 2007 NHL Draft, wouldn't mind an increased role on offense, either. He was one of Carolina's featured penalty killers and rarely saw consistent time on the power play. During his exit interviews with Hurricanes management at the end of the regular season, he said he'd like to be more than just a checking center.
"One thing I did mention to them was I felt there were times when I was stuck," Sutter said. "They were always expecting me to be good defensively, which is fine, but in terms of offense, there wasn't a whole lot of opportunity. I think that comes with playing with different guys and maybe different chemistry. I think playing with maybe different players -- on a roster that's deeper than what we're used to in Carolina -- and a chance to maybe play with more talented players can help. I think for myself, I don't want to be looked at as just a defensive player. I want to score goals and do things too.
"I think in the past when I've had an opportunity to play power play here and there, it has helped. I'm very comfortable on the penalty kill and checking and stuff like that. I think if you can combine the two, you can turn yourself into a good player. I'm comfortable in the role I'm in but I think it's important, and it has been the last couple years, that I don't want to get stuck playing defense every shift."
Sutter has some unique ties to the Penguins. He scored his first career goal against them, and his uncle, Rich Sutter, played nine games during the 1982-83 and 1983-84 seasons for Pittsburgh. Sutter said he has no real connections to or friendships with anyone on the current team, but he's looking forward to getting acclimated as quickly as possible.
"I just know from playing against them, they're a very talented group and a tough team to play against," Sutter said. "That's what's exciting for me. It's a whole new bag of worms for me. I think one thing you find out in this business is no matter where you go, there's a lot of good guys. We'll have to see how that goes, but that's probably the hardest part in all of it, but it's also something you don't have to worry about because you expect good people everywhere you go. From what I understand, they've got a great locker room."
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