Even though he has only played 16 games for the organization, the Canucks sorely miss Brandon Sutter.
Sutter has not played a game since November 10 when he scored the game-winning goal against Columbus. It turned out to be the team’s only win during that dreadful road trip, even though that game against Columbus was arguably the worst game they played on the trip.
Sutter’s absence has had a trickle-down effect on the roster, especially at center. With Sutter out of the lineup, the Canucks have had paper-thin depth at centre after Henrik Sedin, with Bo Horvat, Jared McCann and Adam Cracknell lining up as the next three centers. If Horvat was not enduring the sophomore slump, Sutter’s absence would not be as evident. However having a 20-year-old, a 19-year-old rookie, and a 30-year-old journeyman as your centers does not jump out and scream success.
Horvat and McCann have both seen their numbers dip since Sutter departed from the lineup. Horvat was not lighting the lamp, but had two goals and five points in 16 games before Sutter’s injury. Since then, Horvat had no goals and five points in 22 games. McCann was the star of the Canucks in the early going with five goals in his first nine games. Before Sutter’s injury, he registered seven points in 16 games, but only has four points since Sutter’s injury, despite an increase in his ice time.
Out of necessity, the Canucks have had to rely on their younger players, and it has contributed to their lack of success. Horvat is Willie Desjardins go-to guy for taking defensive zone face-offs, a role that Sutter will likely take over when he returns.
Brandon Sutter has been skating about 3-4 times already but a week to 10 days away for sure as per Desjardins @Sportsnet
— Cassie Campbell (@CassieCampbell) December 26, 2015
Sutter could return to the Canucks lineup as early as next week. Let’s look at where Desjardins could slot him in upon his return.
Sutter On The Second Line
Other than the top line of the Sedins and Hansen, there is not a lot of success protruding from the rest of the Canucks line up. Desjardins should be encouraged to shake things up when Sutter returns.
When Sutter returns, Desjardins should give him his spot back on the second line. In doing that, it would ease up some of the responsibilities that Horvat and McCann have shouldered over the past two months. The two young centers could use a reduction in their ice time so that they can focus on the details of their game and scale down the pressure on them to score.
In looking at Horvat from last season and McCann from early on this year, both of them played better when they had less responsibilities. It is better for their development if they are eased into bigger roles, rather than being thrust into them the way they were this season.
If Sutter centers the second line, Desjardins will likely have Baertschi and Vrbata as his wingers, since they are the best options the Canucks have in terms of secondary scoring. Baertschi was injured on Monday against the Los Angeles Kings, and if he is out for any length of time then Burrows will likely be promoted to the second line.
For the sanity of the Canucks fan base, let’s hope it is not Chris Higgins.
Sutter On The Third Line
There are two logical reasons to have Sutter on the third line once he returns to the lineup. One, he will probably be a bit rusty after being sidelined for almost two months. Desjardins will surely have in as a top penalty killer as well, so keeping him on the third line would be a good way to ease him back into the lineup.
Secondly, after weeks of struggling it finally looked like the Canucks were beginning to develop a second line with the emergence of Baertschi, Horvat, and Vrbata. Horvat has still gone 26 games without a goal, but gave Baertschi some great set-ups over the last few games, two of them that led to goals off the rush by Baertschi.
Vrbata has also been vocal about having familiarity with his centers in order to develop chemistry. By splitting up Horvat and Vrbata, then Vrbata would have to start all over again by trying to find chemistry with Sutter.
Of course, Vrbata and Horvat have not been very successful together. The two are a combined -31. Horvat’s -17 is tied for worst in the NHL, and Vrbata is not far behind with his -14 being third worst in the league.
It will be interesting to see what Desjardins does when Sutter returns to the lineup, but it seems like he will likely slot back into the second line center spot. Consider that he was brought in to be the team’s second line center while Horvat continued his development, it would be a surprise to see any different in the long term.
Despite an increase in the both Sedins’ ice time, Sutter still leads the Canucks in average ice time among forwards. Benning famously labelled him a foundation player going forward, so expect Sutter to see lots of ice time for the Canucks if he is indeed fully healthy when he returns.