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Droschak: Sutter Faces Off Against Father

by David Droschak / Carolina Hurricanes
Brandon Sutter has pretty much seen it all in his rookie season in the NHL. He’s already recovered from a vicious open-ice hit that produced a concussion, witnessed the business side of the league with a coaching change and embraced a penalty-killing role that includes shutting down the likes of scoring machines Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

Now comes Tuesday night and a whole new experience, shall we say surreal experience, when Sutter will step on the RBC Center ice to compete against his father Brent, the head coach of the New Jersey Devils.

“Yeah, it will be crazy,” Sutter said. “I’ve never played against him. That will be pretty weird, for sure, pretty different. I’ll have to see how it goes.”

After a few butterflies, maybe a glimpse or two toward the New Jersey bench, Brandon will likely settle into the flow of the game. After all, it’s just hockey, right? The sport that Brandon lived and breathed as the son of father who played in the league for 18 years, and the nephew of five uncles who combined for 63 more NHL seasons. 

“A lot of time in the summer they are just my uncles and we do things away from hockey, but in the season I’ll talk to them or I’ll see them in different cities,” Brandon said. “It’s kind of cool knowing I have so many family members in the hockey world.”

Is there a favorite uncle, one who took you under his wing?

“They are all awesome to me. We’ve got a pretty cool family. I can’t point to one. I would be in trouble if I did,” Brandon said with a laugh.

Brandon’s closeness to the game helped him ascend to the NHL ranks sooner than expected as the first-round pick of Carolina in 2007 played just seven games in the American Hockey League last season before cracking the Canes’ roster this year as a teenager. 

“Quite frankly, he’s playing in the league probably a year earlier than I would have expected him to, but that’s because of his determination and great hockey sense,” said Canes general manager Jim Rutherford. “He surprises me that he’s so poised for his age. If I saw this player a year or two from now none of this would surprise me, but as a 19-year-old I’m surprised and impressed.”

“He’s been around the game his whole life with his dad and uncles, that’s why this is probably not that much of a shock for him as it might be for some other guys,” added captain Rod Brind’Amour. “This is the norm for him, he’s been around NHL locker rooms. That really helps because it’s not that big a deal. It’s a comfort factor and he kind of fits right in.”

Brandon is just the latest in a line of recent first-round draft successes for Rutherford and his scouting staff. Cam Ward (2002) has won a Conn Smythe Trophy, Eric Staal (2003) has been the MVP of an All-Star Game, Andrew Ladd (2004) was traded for Tuomo Ruutu and Jack Johnson (2005) was dealt for Tim Gleason – now two of Carolina’s better players.

When Brandon was available at the 11th overall pick two years ago, it was a slam-dunk choice.

“We did like the player because of his family, you knew what the bloodlines were, you knew the character of the family,” Rutherford said. “But you have to be able to play. We just felt that he was a good player, the right player for us to select. When you look at our center ice, we needed a good young player in there.”

The decision was then made this past offseason and prior to training camp to pencil Brandon into the lineup, a bold move for a youngster who is still of junior hockey age.

“We don’t usually do that for players who haven’t played here before,” Rutherford said. “But we said to ourselves that he would have had to play himself out of a job. I did think his camp started rather slowly, but as each week went by he just got better and better and as we got closer to opening night he showed he was ready to stay here.”

“Coming to camp was different,” Brandon said. “I was skating with my junior team for a month before I came so this was a lot quicker and faster and it took a couple of weeks to get the pace and into proper shape. The first part of camp was just going OK, but by the time we were done with conditioning I felt pretty comfortable and I felt I was ready to play the whole season.”

But what role would Brandon take on? He certainly wasn’t going to steal any minutes from Staal, Brind’Amour or Matt Cullen, the team’s three top veteran centers. And as a fourth-line player, would he receive enough NHL minutes to continue his development? In a surprising move, then-coach Peter Laviolette and the rest of the coaching staff decided to use Brandon as one of the team’s main penalty-killers, a rare rookie role.

He immediately shined, showing poise and positioning of a 10-year NHL veteran.

“That wasn’t just trying to find some minutes for him to play, it was because he was one of our top penalty killers,” Rutherford said. “You don’t find many first-year players who can still play junior hockey who play on specialty teams. On the (offensive) side of it you had a Crosby who played on the power play, or an Ovechkin, who still at a junior age tried to put up points, but on the other side, trying to prevent players from getting points, you have Brandon. That speaks highly of him that he can do that.

“It’s his hockey sense,” added Rutherford. “He knows where to be, and his anticipation, his positioning is so good. That alone tells you this player is going to have a real good NHL career.”

New coach Paul Maurice already had a preconceived notion of Brandon’s penalty-killing ability when he replaced Laviolette in early December.

“I watched Carolina play a little bit before I got here and there was a 5-on-3 at the start of the third period, so (Brind’Amour) was rested and Sutter came out to kill the penalty, which was an indicator that the kid’s got something.”

Brandon’s development over the next two or three seasons will come on the offensive end, in the face-off circle and in the weight room. At 6-3, 183 pounds, he’s got a similar frame to when Staal broke into the league as a skinny teenager in 2003.

After 32 NHL games, Brandon has one goal and five assists in limited five-on-five ice time. His ice time has dipped somewhat over the last month, but he’s still averaging around 10 minutes a game on the season.

“He’s capable of moving up into the top nine,” Rutherford said. “He’s not going to move ahead of Eric or Rod or Matt, those are all experienced guys and good players, but certainly if we had an injury there or a change to one of those guys, I feel that he can play there. Now, one thing that we would be cautious about would be his strength at this age. How many minutes can he really play night after night after night? That would be something you would have to watch for, but from an ability point of view I feel he can play there.”

“When you are a young man you spend those first couple years finding your game and what it means to be in the National Hockey League,” added Maurice. “But he has two things going for him – he has a really, really high hockey IQ on the ice, he knows where he’s supposed to be and were he’s supposed to stand, and he’s got a great stick. I’m not talking about necessarily a 50-goal stick, but defensively he knocks a ton of pucks out of the air and that’s a gift. People here can relate it to basketball, where some players just get their hands on the ball all the time. He’s one of those guys.”

It remains to be seen if Brandon fills out like Staal, who now goes 6-4, 205. However, the kid isn’t shy about throwing his weight around in the corners.   

“He was taught by his family that you do what it takes to get the job done, do what it takes to win, and that’s how he plays every shift,” Rutherford said.

“For young guys, I tell them to just go play because when you get a couple of years into the league you’re not allowed to make mistakes,” added Brind’Amour. “As a youngster there is a little more leeway, which is good. That’s where you develop. You don’t want to put the chains on guys. If you understand that, that you’re supposed to screw up from time-to-time and just go play, you’re better suited to develop and I think that’s what he’s doing.”

Brandon talks to his father on a daily basis, but all bets are off come Tuesday night.

“My dad just tells me to make sure you’re getting better every day at this level because there is always someone trying to take your job here,” Brandon said.

Who better to give hockey advice to a youngster than a Sutter?

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