With all the dismal news with the lockout, it’s hard to think about the regular season when we don’t know when the regular season will start or if the regular season will even exist. When the regular season starts though, the Penguins will have new look.
The fact that Penguins were built, by GM Ray Shero, from a core of three highly talented, high draft pick centers is no secret. So much so that many teams and GM’s around the league actually refer to it as the “Pittsburgh Model”. It came into question, after two back to back Stanley Cup appearances followed by three early play exits, including two back to back first round losses, whether it was the ideal way to build a team. Boston won the Stanley Cup with their four line system and the New York Rangers won the east with their defensive collapse to the net system and permeations of these systems seemed to be popping up all around the league. When the season ended for the Penguins, Shero was asked if he thought the system still worked and Shero replied with uncertainty.
When all was said and done and the NHL’s 2011-2012 season was completed, it was the Los Angeles Kings that went on to win the Stanley Cup with the same sort of premise as the Penguins, with centers Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll. After things cooled down after the emotional loss to the Flyers Shero seemed re-convinced that the system worked when he offered Jordan Staal a 10 year 60 million dollar contract over the summer. When Staal turned down the deal, Jordan Staal part of the Pittsburgh Model core was traded away for Brandon Sutter, a first round draft pick and a defensive prospect on the night of the NHL entry draft in Pittsburgh. It was widely noted the Shero got the best return he could have with the circumstances he was given, but it was also widely followed with the idea that Penguins would not have the same potency down the middle without Staal.
Staal was selected No. 2 overall in the 2006 draft and anchored the third line with Selke-like play during back to back Stanley Cup appearances culminating with a Stanley Cup championship in 2009. Staal also filled in admirably as a first line center for the Penguins after Crosby and Malkin were lost to injury in the 2010-2011 season, and as a second line center for the majority of last season due to the continuing concussion symptoms of Sidney Crosby. Every Penguins fan knew Staal was a huge part of Penguins success and he proved it on paper when he led the Penguins in scoring over their short playoff run, outscoring the two anointed superstars and past league MVP’s. By the time the playoffs were completed Staal had completed his evolution into the scoring center that everyone expected him to be when he was taken No. 2 overall one spot before Blackhawks captain Jonathon Towes.
Here’s where I start to fray from the pack a bit. I think that the Penguins will be every bit as good, if not better, with Brandon Sutter as they were with Jordan Staal. I am aware this is a bit of a controversial opinion mainly because of how good Staal was for the Penguins over the past 5 years, and the fact he was a fan favorite and before I go any further with this assertion I want preface these thoughts with: Staal is a great player and at age 24 has infinite potential. I wish him all the best in Carolina. (Ok back to why Staal sucks because he’s not on the Penguins anymore and why Sutter is instantly the next Datsyuk. I kid, I kid.)
When the Penguins went to those back to back Stanley Cup Finals, which is where we undoubtedly want to return, he was a stud two-way center that complimented superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin magnificently, assigned to play against the opponent’s top forward line.. It was a match up nightmare because when the opponent decided to avoid that match up it freed up Crosby or Malkin and if Staal had a chance he was capable of scoring huge goals like the short-handed goal in game 4 of the in 2009 Final which might be the single most important goal in Penguins history or this Beaut in game 6 that got the Penguins back in the series after losing 5-0 in game 5. HUGE goals in huge moments, and big defensive play in big games. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. At this time, in 2009, Staal was one of the top three defensive forwards in the league and the best short-handed forward in the league bar none.
But that was Staal then, this is now. (great book by the way: That was then, This is now… by the same chick who wrote The Outsiders, i know right? can you believe a chick wrote The Outsiders? anyways…) As I mentioned Staal has evolved into a different player, the player he was always capable of being: a first line center with size and scoring ability, a power play pivot, a consistent 30 goal scorer but until he reached that level he was always more than competent of filling the defense third line center role with his size and hockey IQ. Filling in for Crosby and Malkin over the past two years, he bloomed and there was no regression in the cards for him. When Crosby was back for the playoffs last year Bylsma just assumed the Penguins would be back to where they were three years prior with Staal matched up against Giroux shutting him down like he had Datsyuk and Ovechkin in the past but he wasn’t that player anymore. Staal had grown out of that, and that’s why he turned down the money from the Penguins not because the money was bad but because he couldn’t be that player the Penguins wanted and needed him to be.
Brandon Sutter is that player. Sutter is what Staal was in 2008 and 2009 ladies and gentleman, and that’s why I am so excited for him to suit up for the Penguins whenever the regular season finally starts. Sutter is a highly skilled two way center who in Carolina was slotted in the two hole because of their lack of depth at the position. When aligned below Crosby and Malkin, Sutter is capable of being one the best third line centers in the league.
Sutter, 23, was taken in the 2007 entry draft, one year after Staal, at No. 11 overall. He is the son of Calgary Flames head coach Brent Sutter, which simply means this kid has had NHL caliber coaching his whole life and because of that he has excelled at every level. Sutter played his first season in 08-09 scoring his first NHL goal against Marc-Andre Fluery. He has played three full seasons in the NHL,with a career high of 21 goals in ‘09-‘10 season. He is a defensive center capable of putting up 20 goals on a bad Hurricanes teams. With Crosby and Malkin taking up the best defensive pairs, Sutter will have much more ice to work with offensively and will be able to focus his efforts towards defensive play because he won’t be relied upon for considerable offensive contribution. He will be, however, relied upon for substantial defensive contribution and I have all the faith in the world he will live up to this responsibility. Sutter will come in and instantly be the Penguins top defensive forward far and away and will be eating up just as many penalty kill minutes as Staal was.
If there is anything that is obvious after the Flyers series, it’s that the Penguins don’t need offensive help, they need defensive help. A general misconception is that our defense was completely to blame for the high goals against. This isn’t completely true. The defense did not play to its standards, true, but the defense is not just made up of defensemen it also includes defensively responsible forwards which were few and far between in the last two weeks of the regular season through the playoffs. The Penguins didn’t need any more goals in the Flyers series, they needed someone to lift up Vorachek’s stick as he scored the overtime winner in game 1. Sutter’s defensive CORSI number (highly sophisticated stat that is used to place a value on the player’s worth offensively and defensively per 20 minute increments. It shows how the player effects his teammates offensively in the offensive zone and how he effects his teammates defensively in the defensive zone, it also takes into account the quality of their opponent based upon their opposite CORSI scores whether it be offensive or defensive. Confusing I know, if you’re interested this article is a must read, mostly because it proves my point, check out the comparison of Jordan Staal v. Brandon Sutter HERE) Sutter’s defensive CORSI number is significantly better than Staal’s. Per the CORSI number Brandon Sutter is the 6th best defense forward in the league, which is saying a lot considering how many quality defensive forwards there are in the league like Backes, Bergeron, Datsyuk, Kesler, Towes, etc. By adding a defensive forward of that caliber, the Penguins put themselves in a better position to win, and specifically to win in the playoffs. Which of course, when it comes down to it, is the only thing that matters
I know it’s not really fair to compare Sutter to Staal, a fan favorite, but it’s what everyone is going to do and I personally think Sutter will shine in the 3rd line center role for the Penguins. Granted, Staal was a much better insurance policy than Sutter if Crosby or Malkin were to get hurt again because he is able to be that first line and second line goal scoring center that Sutter probably isn’t able to duplicate (right now anyway) but are the Penguins going to win a Stanley Cup with Crosby and/or Malkin out anyway? Probably not. Sutter may not be the overall player Staal is (again, right now), or the offensive player Staal has become but Sutter is as good as if not better than what Staal was/is defensively and that’s just what the Penguins need.