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Early returns

by Thomas Drance / Vancouver Canucks
The Vancouver Canucks welcomed a handful of new faces this month, as the club continues to transition into the Trevor Linden-Jim Benning era.

While young players like Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann, and Ben Hutton impressed at training camp and have made most of the headlines in Vancouver, veterans like Brandon Sutter, Brandon Prust, Adam Cracknell and Matt Bartkowski have filled in ably in depth roles.

Let’s delve into the underlying numbers, and examine some of the early returns on the Canucks’ bevy of offseason moves.

Brandon Sutter

Acquired in a big mid-summer trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and signed to a lucrative long-term contract extension shortly thereafter, Brandon Sutter was the Canucks’ marquee offseason move.

In his first six games the big defensive-minded centreman has impressed on both sides of the puck, and in particular has proven to be a surprisingly versatile piece.

After years of playing behind two-world class centreman in Pittsburgh, Sutter has been leaned on more heavily in Vancouver. Perhaps most surprisingly, he’s been leaned on to play along the wall, filling in ably as a winger on a line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

Sutter has shared the ice with Henrik for over 52 minutes at 5-on-5 so far this season, according to hockeyanalysis.com. In those 52 minutes the Canucks have yet to give up a goal against, although it’s probably worth noting that the Sedins haven’t been quite as good at controlling the balance of on-ice shot attempts with Sutter than they have generally been with the likes of Alexandre Burrows, Jannik Hansen, or Radim Vrbata.

Even beyond Sutter’s surprise turn as a top-line winger, the big centreman is playing in all situations. He’s currently being used on Vancouver’s first power-play unit, he’s leading all Canucks forwards in short-handed ice time per game, and with a pair of goals and three assists, he’s also the club’s leading scorer through six contests.

Some of Sutter’s surprising offensive production could prove ephemeral. In particular he’s benefitting from a sky-high on-ice shooting percentage that’s currently hovering above 10 percent. As that regresses, we should reasonably expect Sutter’s near point-per game pace to fall off.

Even so, there’s no question that Sutter’s first couple of weeks in a Canucks sweater have proven fruitful.

Matt Bartkowski

Matt Bartkowski, 27, was signed as a free agent on a one year contract. The transitional defensive defenseman has held down a top-four role in six games with the Canucks so far, and even managed to score his first ever NHL goal this past weekend against the Edmonton Oilers. That’s not what he was brought in to provide, but the Canucks will surely take it!

Bartkowski hasn’t factored in much to the Canucks’ special teams play, and his shot attempt differential is the worst among all Canucks defenders as his pairing with Dan Hamhuis has gotten off to something of a slow start.

Brandon Prust

Acquired on July 1 in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens, Brandon Prust has built a reputation as a tough fourth-line forward who can legitimately and helpfully play a regular shift while also contributing to the penalty kill. You might call him a contributing pugilist, rather than a one-dimensional enforcer.

Prust has fought in every-other game he’s appeared in as a Canuck, and his three total fights give him a share of the NHL lead. There’s a lot more to Prust’s game than the fisticuffs though, and that’s been on display in his first two weeks in Vancouver.

In addition to holding down a supporting role on the penalty kill, Prust is ninth among all Canucks forwards in even-strength ice-time per game. As Canucks coach Willie Desjardins eases a trio of young players – Sven Baertschi, Virtanen and McCann – into everyday duty in the NHL, Prust has essentially held down what we might reasonably describe as a top-nine role.

And he’s done so effectively. Prust may be best known for his fighting abilities, but his defensive play has always been solid. Currently he’s been the Canucks’s single best shot attempt suppressing forward, which is an amazing feat – even over a very small sample – for any player who shares a roster with the Sedin twins.

Prust has also contributed three assists, all of them at even-strength, an indication that his playmaking abilities, always well above average for a fourth-line tough, remain sharp.

Adam Cracknell

Adam Cracknell seized an opportunity at Canucks training camp and made the team. Now he’s eighth among Canucks forwards in even-strength ice time per game through the first couple weeks of the season. That’s the sort of minutes burden you’d expect from a third-line centre.

Cracknell has obviously earned the trust of Vancouver’s coaching staff, and has added a third element to a grinding bottom-six line with Prust and Derek Dorsett that the Canucks have leaned on heavily. Though his shot-attempt differential is the second worst among regular Canucks forwards, there’s something to be said for soaking up minutes responsibility, and Cracknell has managed that. He’s also scored two goals so far, a nice bonus.

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