PITTSBURGH -- Brandon Sutter came to Pittsburgh with some pretty big shoes to fill, having to replace Jordan Staal, one of the NHL's best shutdown, two-way centers.
The fact he was traded for Staal on draft night no doubt added to the expectations for the 2013 season.
Fortunately for the Penguins, that role of having to play in defensive situations against opponents' best offensive players is one that Sutter was used to in Carolina.
Through the first eight games of the 2013 season, he's showing that same ability. He doesn't quite have Staal's offensive potential. And entering Saturday's game against New Jersey -- a dominating 5-1 Penguins victory -- he was not only looking for his first goal of the season, he had yet to be on the ice for a 5-on-5 goal scored by the Penguins. That all changed when he scored early in the second period (on a third effort) and was also on the ice for a Robert Bortuzzo goal late in the third period.
But while the Penguins haven't been generating much offense with him on the ice, they also haven't been giving up any, either. And for a team that has struggled defensively since the end of last season, and at times this season, that has to be a welcome sight.
Through Saturday's game, he is still the only Penguins player to have appeared in at least five games this season and not be on the ice for an even-strength goal against. Even more, the Penguins entered Saturday's game allowing fewer ES shots with him on the ice as opposed to when he's off the ice. What's impressive about that is the situations that the Penguins have placed him in are situations in which you would expect the number of goals and shots against to go up ... not down. He's not only going up against top players, but they're sticking him on the ice for defensive-zone faceoffs, starting only 40 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone.
And here are the numbers, via behindthenet.ca:
(Key: GA W/60 = Goals Against With Sutter per 60 minutes; SA W/60 = Shots Against With Sutter per 60 minutes; GA W/0 60 = Goals Against Without Sutter per 60 minutes; SA W/0 60 Shots Against Without Sutter per 60 minutes)
|Brandon Sutter: 2013 5-on-5 performance (Before Saturday)|
|Player||ES Minutes||GA W/60||SA W/60||GA W/O 60||SA W/0 60|
Just to put his performance into even more perspective, here are the top forwards Sutter has been matched up against at 5-on-5 this season (via stats.hockeyanalysis.com): Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, Rick Nash, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read, Kyle Okposo, Erik Condra, Zach Smith, Matt Moulson, John Tavares.
I asked Penguins coach Dan Bylsma about his clean slate defensively, and before answering he responded by knocking on the wood podium in front of him.
"I think to this point he's probably been more focussed on defense," said Bylsma when talking about Sutter's performance to date. "Not the just situations he's been put in or the lines he's been playing against, but he's been on the defensive side of the puck an awful lot. And he's been playing smart that way.
"He is a responsible player that way but he's also a guy that does have speed, he does have a really good shot, and that hasn't necessarily materialized for him yet, but he has been very good and he's been put on the ice to play against other teams' good players an awful lot, which he's done a very good job of."