Sautner spent his major junior career with the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings and won the Memorial Cup in 2014. Until he was a 19-year-old WHL veteran, he wasn’t much of a point producer, and though his team enjoyed WHL success, no NHL clubs ever drafted the well-spoken young blue liner.
Coming into his first season of professional hockey, it wasn’t even clear that Sautner would stick in the American Hockey League. As a left-handed shooting defenseman, there appeared to be a significant logjam in Utica, with fellow Canucks prospects Evan McEneny and Anton Cedarholm also competing for playing time.
The young, two-way defenseman knew he had to play hard and keep it simple.
“We had quite a few guys on the left side and I knew coming in, even, back to Penticton which seems like forever ago, that there was a few guys who were going to have to fight for spots,” Sautner told Canucks.com in mid-December following a 5-4 Utica Comets overtime victory over the Toronto Marlies.
“It was just a matter of working hard in practice,” Sautner continued. “Once we got back from training camp in France, it was just a matter of working hard and earning a spot."
What began with Sautner aiming to earn a roster spot in Utica, has evolved into him earning an NHL call up. Injuries to a host of Canucks defenseman like Luca Sbisa, Dan Hamhuis and Taylor Fedun have created a significant opportunity for Sautner, both in Utica and now in Vancouver.
“I like it when you have to throw young guys into the fire,” Utica head coach Travis Green said of Sautner’s opportunity to step into a matchup role on a depleted Comets blue line. “They've got to play against good players."
Vancouver’s newest seventh defenseman, for one, welcomes the challenge.
“lt’s always nice to play more, get more involved in the game,” Sautner said. “Any situation you can play in is good, it helps you as a first year guy to get some confidence in yourself and speeds up the development process too."
Sautner has now enjoyed an extended taste of AHL action, having appeared in 19 games with the Comets. His skating ability and brainy two-way game was a bit of a known quantity, but the offensive production – Sautner has three goals and eight points already - has been somewhat surprising in his first year as a professional, even to the player himself.
"I wasn't sure how (my offense) was going to go,” Sautner admitted earlier this month. “I had confidence in myself coming in, but it's just something where you take another step in your hockey career and it gets harder and harder. I have three goals now, I'm happy with where I'm sitting and hopefully I'll keep building on it."
Sautner may be surprised by the early offensive success he’s found at the AHL level, but his coach isn’t.
“We've watched him right from the beginning,” Green told Canucks.com. “Such a good skater, gets up the ice well, he's got good vision. I'm not surprised (by Sautner’s offensive success), but it's a nice bonus.”
If Sautner can maintain his current AHL scoring rate this season, it would auger well for chances of developing into an everyday NHL player. Roughly 28 percent of the 263 defenseman that were close to 6-foot-1 and produced at a rate similar to what Sautner has managed so far as a 21-year-old in the AHL managed to appear in at least 200 NHL games.
So the young defenseman has to beat the odds yet again. Only nine months removed from signing with the Canucks as a free agen though, Sautner is looking like a much more promising bet to become a useful NHL contributor than your typical undrafted free agent.