One of the bright spots for the Hurricanes this year has been Brandon Sutter's emergance as a shutdown defensive center but I still hear hockey pundits talk about how he has been a "disappointment." Whenever I hear that, I can't help but feel that these "experts" aren't watching the Hurricanes and are only looking at Sutter's 22 points in 54 games to judge his performance. What they don't see is all of the other contributions he makes to the team.
If you go by simple raw data, Sutter doesn't appear to be that impressive. He has only 12 goals, 22 points and a 44.6% scoring chance rate, but the truth is that Sutter has been one of the Canes most important players this year. Sutter's defensive game and responsibility has improved by a lot and you have to look deep into certain stats to see this.
We'll explore this more after the jump.
Every team needs a defensive unit that they can send out against opposing top lines and for the last couple of years, Brandon Sutter has been centering that unit for the Hurricanes. He typically starts a lot in the defensive zone against tough competition, so this role is nothing new to him but he's taking on a much heavier workload this season compared to the last two.
From 2008 through 2010, Sutter took roughly 45% of his draws in the offensive zone and faced the second toughest competition from opponents while Eric Staal was typically used against the opponent's top units. This year, Sutter is starting only 36.2% of his draws in the offensive zone against top competition and it has freed up Staal to play easier minutes. With Erik Cole gone, Staal has been playing with guys who need softer minutes to succeed (i.e. Tuomo Ruutu, Jeff Skinner & Jiri Tlusty) and he isn't being used in tough defensive situations as much. Because of this and the Jokinen line also needing protection, Sutter has been forced to take on a much bigger workload and he's responded well to the challenge.
The coaching staff's usage of Sutter isn't terribly different from what the Canucks do with Manny Malhotra or how the Blackhawks use Dave Bolland to free up Jonathan Toews. The results haven't been quite as good for Staal but it is worth noting that Staal is driving play at a higher rate than just about any other Canes forward. His point total is beginning to climb up to its usual rate and it would be higher if he wasn't suffering from a career-low shooting percentage. Also, ever since Muller took over, guys like Jokinen, Ruutu, Skinner and Tlusty have gotten more offensive zone starts which has helped their offensive underlying numbers and their point total. Sutter's play in the defensive zone and the coach's trust in him allows Muller to do that. Sutter (and Dwyer & Nodl to an extent) make the Hurricanes a better team.
As for Sutter's raw data, if we were to adjust his scoring chance data for zone starts, he would be the highest rated forward on the team with a 6.83 Adjusted Scoring Chance Differential. He is also on pace to have a higher point total than the 29 he had last season. If the Canes were to get something like 15 goals and 35 points out of Sutter, that would be great when you consider the role he plays and how often he's buried in the defensive zone.
When comparing Sutter to other defensive centers in the league, he also looks very impressive. I looked at zone start, quality of competition and corsi relative data for every center in the NHL who have played at least 40 games and discovered that Sutter has the 11th highest defensive zone start percentage. That is comparable with the likes of Bolland, Jay McClement, Nate Thompson, Boyd Gordon, Sami Pahlsson and Kyle Brodziak, all of whom are considered "shutdown centers" in the NHL. The difference is that Sutter is performing better territorially than most of them.
The only players who have a higher corsi relative rating are Jeff Halpern, Kyle Brodziak and Dave Steckel. Two of whom face significantly weaker competition than Sutter. Although, Brodziak is probably superior to Sutter as he has 29 points and is maintaining a respectable corsi relative rating on one of the worst teams in the NHL at controlling possession. Still, I think it is fair to put Sutter in the same class as players like Brodziak, Bolland, Pahlsson and McClement in the sense that their great defensive play helps benefit their respective teams in a lot of ways.
It is easy to forget that Sutter is only 22 years old and players with a lot of offensive upside who are also sound defensively are very hard to come by at such a young age. This year, we're seeing more of his defensive play but his all-around game should continue to develop as he gets older and he could turn into a fantastic two-way center. The Hurricanes have a very special player in Sutter and his best years are only ahead of him.
All stats are from Behind the Net