Among the hot topics of the Jim Benning has been the case of Brandon Sutter. Acquired in 2016 for centre Nick Bonino and a 2nd round draft pick, and dubbed a “foundational player” by Benning, the expectations were high. For the first several years, those were largely not met (save for the exception of maybe the 2016-17 campaign, where he played largely out of his depth in the top six but scored a respectable 34 points).
The 2018-19 was the season that many Canucks fans forgot about Sutter. Due to injury, he played just 26 games. In those 26 contests, he scored just four goals and six points. The raw production could perhaps be ignored; what couldn’t was the decline in overall ability. His skating was evidently worsened, and the penalty killing -- for which he was often lauded -- was not up to par. While he frustrated fans before, largely due to unfair deployment, Sutter’s one area of strength arguably became a vulnerability.
What perhaps will hurt Sutter in the long run is the general direction of the club. Jay Beagle -- the big 2018 free agent signing -- was far from great, but generally did what Sutter was expected to. Elias Pettersson was an immediately impactful top-six centre, while Adam Gaudette proved himself at least capable of playing NHL minutes up the middle. Thus, the true impact wasn’t caused by Sutter himself, but rather his being passed by teammates. This is being felt already, prior to the start of the season. Gaudette is establishing himself as a legitimate NHL presence, while Beagle, with a $3 million price tag, seems unlikely to be taken out of the lineup. While it still feels like a longshot that Sutter will be a regular healthy scratch, his absence in 2017-18 did him no favours in the realm of the depth chart.
The future for Sutter is uncertain. He seems unlikely to fit in with the long-term vision of the club, stylistically or structurally, nor does he fill a niche role as a penalty killer (with the likes of Loui Eriksson and Beagle offering value almost exclusively on the penalty kill). Travis Green’s coaching style is one that emphasizes speed and tenacity, aspects that, in his prime, would accurately describe the former Penguin and Hurricane, but now seem like distant memories. Meanwhile, with the likes of Josh Leivo and Jake Virtanen in depth scoring roles, they may be seen as a better use of ice time than Sutter from a production perspective.
Sutter’s tenure in Vancouver has arguably been hard to evaluate, and last season was a prime example of such. He has been a player largely misused, and often injured. Unfortunately for the 30-year-old, there are others doing similar things at a younger age and a cheaper price catching up to him. A trade, regular healthy scratches, or reemergence as a respectable bottom-six centre are all viable options for a future pathway, making him one of the more compelling storylines as we begin the 2018-19 regular season.