It was one of those plays that make you say, “Wow.”
In last Wednesday’s rivalry matchup against the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Brandon Sutter earned the primary assist on Jussi Jokinen‘s game-tying goal with 8:25 to play. The Penguins would eventually win on a late Olli Maatta tally, clinching a franchise-record 13th straight home victory.
In setting up Jokinen’s equalizer, Sutter outmanuevered Eric Fehr and Connor Carrick in the left-wing corner before tossing a strong backhand feed to the front of the net. Jokinen jammed the pass through Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth, but the goal was made possible by Sutter’s creative work:
We’ve come to expect flashes of offensive virtuosity from Sutter during his short stay in Pittsburgh. In particular, games against the Bruins tend to stoke his goal-creating fires, so it was nice to see Sutter diversify his routine.
Still, his occasional stunning plays beg the question of where his skill goes to hide most times. Not even Sidney Crosby can be at his best every night, but it’s strange that Sutter’s eye-opening moments are so comet-like: rare yet spectacular.
Maybe it’s maturity; Sutter is in his fifth NHL season, but he’s still a month shy of his 25th birthday. Consistency tends to elude some players until they reach a certain age. Maybe it’s opportunity; Sutter frequently looks ordinary while centering the Penguins’ third line, but he was as dynamic as ever while taking shifts on Crosby’s right wing last Wednesday.
I tend to think Sutter’s linemates are at fault for his unsteady production. As we saw against the Capitals, Sutter’s speed and skill plays well with other similarly talented players alongside him. The play above notwithstanding, he’s not usually going to be able to create something from nothing – unless the opposition has to give him some room out of respect of his linemates’ abilities.
Sutter has eight goals and nine assists in 48 games this season, putting him essentially right on his career scoring rate of .37 points per game. With the exception of his breakout sophomore season of 2009-10 (40 points in 72 games), Sutter has been remarkably even in his production.
Maybe being a supporting player is Sutter’s lot in life, but I tend to think he has more to offer.
Looking at his quality of teammates this season, Sutter has received the lowest level of support among full-time Penguins forwards. His three most frequent linemates have been career fringe NHLer Chris Conner, a should-be fourth-liner in Tanner Glass and a declining Craig Adams.
In addition to the offseason flight of Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke, injuries have limited the effectiveness of the Sutter-led third line. With Beau Bennett still recovering from a hand/wrist ailment, it appears Sutter will have to continue to do the heavy lifting on his unit until the Olympics.
Sutter will never be a primary offensive option as long as he’s on the Penguins. Besides Adams and Joe Vitale, no Pittsburgh player starts as many of his shifts in the defensive zone (33.6 percent), where Sutter’s goal-prevention skills are put to good use.
At the same time, if Sutter could get some more help, a return to his 2009-10 production wouldn’t be a surprise. With the salary cap nosing above $70 million next year, the Penguins will have an increased ability to augment their forward depth, something Sutter should be smiling about.
Tonight’s Game: Penguins (34-12-2, 70 points – 1st Metropolitan) vs. Panthers (18-23-7, 43 points – 7th Atlantic) at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Faceoff is set for 7 p.m. Eastern time, with Root Sports Pittsburgh and 105.9 The X broadcasting the action.
Thanks as always to the wonderful Extra Skater for the stats. Check them out!