If you didn’t see this coming from Brandon Sutter
following his recall to the Hurricanes on October 24, you’re not alone.
Expectations have always been high for the 20-year-old, who the team chose with their first-round pick, 11th overall, in 2007. But to score nine points in his first 13 games of the season, fill in admirably for the injured Eric Staal
on the first line and serve as the team’s best forward for many of those games?
“He’s really ahead of schedule, and maybe ahead of projections, with the skill level and the offense he’s shown,” said General Manager Jim Rutherford, who had originally planned for Sutter play at least half of the season with Albany of the American Hockey League. “We always knew he’d be an impact player for our organization because he’s such a smart player, but at this age, to score the kind of goals he’s scoring, we’ve seen a whole other side of him. That’s great news for this organization.”
Sutter’s standout defense is part of what made him such a highly-touted prospect and caused the Hurricanes to decide to keep him as a 19-year-old to start the 2008-09 season rather than return him to his junior team in Red Deer, Alberta. He did not disappoint in that area, but scored just one goal and six points in 50 games on the fourth line and was eventually reassigned to Albany for the Hurricanes’ stretch drive.
It did not take long for a summer of hard work on his physical conditioning to pay off, as the 6-foot-3, 183-pound Sutter’s skating stride showed marked improvements from day one of the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Michigan, all the way through the Hurricanes’ training camp and exhibition schedule.
“In Brandon, it’s his strength, foot speed and just that confidence level from being a year older,” said Rutherford back on September 10 – an assessment that has proven more than accurate since. “He’s taken his game to another level.”
“Wow,” said Maurice when asked about Sutter’s play since then. “We knew even last year that … his stick and his hockey sense were NHL ready. He has such a good stick defensively and was making plays, but we just felt he needed to get a little bit stronger and get a little more weight to his frame.”
Sutter is different from most highly-touted prospects in that the defensive play has always been present, while the offense took longer to develop. Usually, it’s the opposite for talented scorers that have yet to learn the finer points of the overall game.
“His sense of the game is just outstanding,” said Maurice. “It’s surprising because he’s 20 years old, but there’s not a lot of teaching that’s going on in terms of his positioning on the ice and his reads. He is clearly ahead of the age curve in terms of understanding how the game is played.”
Although some are concerned that Sutter may return to a less prominent role on the team once Staal returns from injury as early as this week, Rutherford doesn’t see that happening. Instead, thanks to Sutter’s accelerated development, the Hurricanes may get their first glimpse at something they envision for years to come.
“That’s really the future of our franchise,” said Rutherford. “When you have Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter as your one-two punch at center ice – big tall guys that can play the way they play – I think that speaks highly for our future.
“It would be silly to cut his ice time back with the way he’s playing,” added Rutherford. “If he continues to play like this, he’s a very prominent player in this league.”
In fact, Sutter’s chemistry with line mates Erik Cole and Ray Whitney has developed so much that the group may remain together past Staal’s return. Much-improved offensive performances in recent games may actually make it difficult for the team to place its franchise center back into the lineup, which is a good problem to have.
“It looks like we’ve got two lines right now that have some offensive chemistry,” said Maurice, who also had praise for the second line featuring Matt Cullen, Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu. “If Eric comes into the lineup, we won’t have to break up two or three lines. We’ve got two lines that are going, and we may just leave them.”
Although the team initially told Sutter to pack for about a week following his initial recall, those plans, like the plans for his overall development, have changed. The team has now told Sutter to move back into the local residence he secured as a rookie last season.
If he continues to play at the level he has since the preseason, he shouldn’t have to worry about leaving it anytime soon.
“I would suspect that he’ll end up playing here and that he’s not going to go back to Albany,” said Rutherford. “The power in his legs, his foot speed and hands – they’re at a very high level now. When you see that, there’s really not a need for him to play in Albany.”
”What we’re seeing now is some speed that maybe we didn’t anticipate at this age,” said Maurice. “When you add the head that’s there and the hands that are there, we’re very, very excited about where he’s at right now and what he means for the future of this franchise.”