Iain MacIntyre Sept 11, 2016
You know about the first-line scorer the Vancouver Canucks signed in free-agency and the bruising defenceman acquired in trade, but you may have forgotten about the key two-way centre they’re also adding this season.
Brandon Sutter played very little for the Canucks between his two major injuries last year. And his final game, Feb. 9, was so long ago, it’s easy to forget he’s still on the NHL team.
When he was obtained 14 months ago from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Sutter was regarded as a core piece in general manager Jim Benning’s rebuild, a two-way centre who would play in all situations, streamline the workloads for Henrik Sedin and Bo Horvat and bridge the professional gap between those two centres near the opposite ends of their careers.
Then Sutter played 16 games before requiring hernia surgery.
Then he played only four more upon his return before breaking his jaw.
The 27-year-old missed 62 of the Canucks’ final 66 games as the team plunged toward the bottom of the standings and missed the Stanley Cup playoffs by a mile.
It was difficult to remember which of the many Sutters he was when some commentators declared in June that the Penguins “won” the trade because former Canuck Nick Bonino, who had scuffled through a mediocre regular season, had a brilliant playoffs setting up Penguins sniper Phil Kessel as Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup.
Perhaps we should at least allow Sutter to compete in the who-won-the-trade competition.
Winger Loui Eriksson, who has three goals in two warmup games skating with Hank and Danny Sedin for Sweden at the World Cup, cost the Canucks only money when he signed with Vancouver on July 1. Defenceman Erik Gudbranson, who provides the top-four size and physical presence on the blue-line that the Canucks have largely lacked since Willie Mitchell was allowed to leave in 2010 and win his Stanley Cups elsewhere, was acquired from the Florida Panthers in May.
But Sutter, fully healthy, should still be near the Canucks’ epicentre this season. He’ll get many of the defensive matchups that overwhelmed Horvat, 21, at times last year and take a least a couple of shifts a game away from Henrik Sedin, who turns 36 in two weeks.
Asked if he felt he’d even had the chance to show people here what kind of player he is, Sutter said: “I guess after eight years, you hope people know what to expect from you. I know what kind of player I am and nothing was really going to change. Everyone wants to score more goals, get more points, things like that. But after being in the league eight years, you realize the biggest thing is just winning and losing. That’s all it comes down to and nothing else matters.”
Even with Sutter, Eriksson and Gudbranson, the Canucks will still be mightily challenged to win enough this season to make the playoffs. Absolutely they will be better than the 28th team that went 11-21-2 the last three months of the season and finished with 75 points. But will they be 20 points better?
“If people are picking us for the bottom, that’s perfect for us,” Sutter said after his first informal skate with teammates in Vancouver last Thursday. “That’s great. Our expectations in the dressing room are very different.
“I think we’ve got a core group that looks at last season and thinks we’re very underrated coming into this year. You start with Hank and Danny and look down the list and there’s eight of 10 of us with experience who can play at a high level, and we’re all two-way players. Especially at forward, we’re all two-way guys.
“Every year in June you watch a team win the Stanley Cup, and you get kind of a sick, jealous feeling watching someone else win. You just wish so bad it’s you one day. That’s what we’re here for and there’s really no reason for us not to go after it.”
It was strange, Sutter admitted, watching his former team win the Stanley Cup in June. He spent three seasons in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins under-performed in the playoffs.
“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “When I was there, I think there was a whole different feel to that team than what there is now. I think there are maybe only nine of 10 players still there. There’s a new coach. The way they started last year was the way we finished the previous year. Something was missing, something just not clicking. They made a coaching change and it seemed everything flipped from there.”
Sutter’s spring was far happier than his winter. He got married – his wife, Giselle, grew up on a farm about a mile from the Sutter place outside Red Deer, Alta. – and travelled to Africa.
Still, it was the longest off-season of his life. The Canucks “shut down” Sutter on March 20, which he says is when his summer training program essentially began. It seems like forever since he has played. That’s about how long the Canucks’ dismal season lasted without him.