To those merely glancing at the offensive numbers, it may appear that Brandon Sutter took a step back in year three of his professional career. If there was ever a player whose contributions can’t be fully expressed by statistics, it’s him.
We’ll give it a shot anyway. His plus-13 plus/minus rating was at least eight points higher than any of his teammates – a significant outlier that adds meaning to an often imperfect stat. That wasn’t simply a matter of out-scoring the opposition’s fourth-line players, as he was regularly tasked with going head-to-head against the best offensive skaters in the league. At just 22 years of age, he was the youngest to lead his team in plus/minus, besting San Jose Sharks defenseman Jason Demers (plus-19) by eight months.
That’s just part of why Hurricanes General Manger Jim Rutherford recently identified Sutter, a player who scored a relatively modest 14 goals last season, as a core member of his team along with Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Jeff Skinner.
“Those are four guys that you can build around and ultimately have a chance to win the cup again,” he said.
Although his status as a restricted free agent doesn’t put the Hurricanes in an awful rush to sign Sutter to a new contract, it remains a priority for the organization and should not prove extremely difficult.
“Brandon Sutter quietly does an exceptional job in this league,” said Rutherford. “He gets very little power-play time, kills penalties, plays against the other team’s top line and, as we know, is a very young player. What I’d like to do is sign him to a long-term contract.”
“From my perspective it will be an easy process,” said Sutter.
According to Rutherford, Sutter’s new contract could be similar in length to deals of seven and six years recently signed by Staal and Ward, respectively. By making that commitment to a player who saw his offensive totals decline by seven goals and 11 points from his 2009-10 breakout season, the Canes are acknowledging that opportunity played a factor.
As Rutherford alluded to, Sutter was not a regular on the Hurricanes’ power play, logging just over 63 minutes on the man advantage for the entire season. Compare that to the team’s top six forwards, a group that remained relatively stable all season with the exception of Cory Stillman taking over for Sergei Samsonov in March. Those players easily topped the 200-minute mark, with Eric Staal well into the 300s.
When Sutter scored the Hurricanes’ first power-play goal of the season in the Helsinki opener, one probably would not have guessed that would be his only such tally of the season. His other goals all came at even strength, as he finished with more such markers than power-play mainstays Tuomo Ruutu (12) and Jussi Jokinen (11).
Although he likely wouldn’t mind some time on the power play – he scored 5 man-advantage goals the previous season with roughly twice as many minutes – he seems content to continue in his current role.
“Everybody wants to score goals,” said Sutter. “I do too, there’s no better feeling, but if I’m solid at both ends of the rink, that’s my job and I won’t waver from that.”
Still, his time may come. Even though he’ll be entering his fourth NHL season this fall, he’s just one month older than San Jose’s Logan Couture and over one year younger than the New York Islanders’ Michael Grabner – two of the league’s rookie of the year finalists along with Skinner.
Even if that window doesn’t open right away, it’s not as though he’ll be underused. Last season, he ranked third among Hurricanes forwards in total ice time behind just Staal and Erik Cole. No forward featured more prominently on the penalty kill.
No matter what kind of a scorer he turns out to be, if the Hurricanes have their way, he’ll continue to be a major all-around contributor for a long time.