Many fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins have been looking back over the past few seasons trying to figure out what has gone wrong with the team, who to blame and what needs to be done to fix it. A common complaint happens to be Brandon Sutter. I'm of the opinion that his biggest problem is that he has some big shoes to fill, so no matter what he does he will always be looked upon as worse than Jordan Staal.
However, it is true that he is not as good as Staal was, but the issue lies in exactly how much worse he is. Some people feel he is decent enough in his own way, particularly when it comes to defensive production rather than his offensive skill. Others think he is just awful, that the Penguins are never going to be successful while he is around, and that they would be better served replacing him with a cheaper option.
Inspired by the work of Lyle Kossis, I wanted to see how Sutter compared to other players who spend most of their time in the D-zone. So I compiled the Fenwick Close for each of the past 5 seasons, as well as multi-year data for his 2 seasons with the Pens and his last 3 seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, of all forwards who had a ZS% below .500 in those particular seasons. In order to look at team effects I also have the relative numbers, and the opponents' performance to use as a QoC comparison.
2013-14 Pittsburgh Penguins
I don't think there is anybody who is arguing that Sutter has been great since coming to Pittsburgh, but as a 3rd liner we're not expecting a whole lot to begin with. So the question isn't whether or not he has been underperforming compared to what we are used to with our high powered Top 6, but where he stands in comparison to other players throughout the league.
So for the 2013-14 season I included all players with 100+ Close minutes, as that was the minimum cutoff I could use so that all 30 teams would include at least 12 forwards. That gets us a total of 450 forwards, averaging 15 per team, so that would include a few players that are still scratches and AHL call-ups. However, when we narrow that down to players with a ZS% below .500 then we cut out a lot of the exceptionally sheltered call-ups and are down to 215 forwards, or on average 7 per team.
At a 45.4% FenClose, Sutter comes in at #150. That puts him above current, former, and future Pens' linemates such as Nick Spaling, Matt Cooke, Craig Adams, Tanner Glass, Chris Conner, and Taylor Pyatt. Of course he isn't perfect, he's also behind a number of teammates including Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy, Blake Comeau, Brian Gibbons, Chuck Kobasew, and Joe Vitale. Lastly, he is also behind Staal whom he replaced.
At a -4.0% Relative FenClose, Sutter drops to #175. He is still above Adams, Glass, Spaling, Conner, and Pyatt. But that means that he is now behind Cooke, as well as the 6 guys he was behind before we changed it to a Relative value.
He was given easier QoC this year, as his opponents' 49.6% FenClose puts him at #166. He did face tougher competition than Pyatt, Adams, Glass, Conner, Kobasew, and Vitale. So four of the guys he outperformed faced weaker competition, and the two that were barely above him faced the lowest QoC of the bunch. However, it means he faced a lower QoC than Spaling, Cooke, and the other 4 guys that had already outperformed him, in addition to Sutter.
If we sort by ZS%, his 42.2% is #149, with Glass, Adams, and Cooke being the only of his linemates who had a worse ZS%. All the other 9 of the above, as well as Staal, got easier Zone Starts, although they were all still below .500 of course.
2012-13 Pittsburgh Penguins
During the lockout they played half as many games, so in order to get all teams at least 12 forwards I had to go with all those that skated 50+ Close minutes. That gives us 459 forward, which is once again 15 per team, and those that had below a .500 ZS% drops us to 221 forwards, once again averaging 7 per team.
At 41.2% FenClose, he was even worse in his first season here, coming in at #203. That means that of his current, former, and future linemates the only one that he outperformed that year was Spaling. He was behind Chris Kunitz, Jussi Jokinen, Dupuis, Adams, Kennedy, Vitale, and Cooke. And of course he was also behind Staal.
At a -9.8% Relative FenClose he fell all the way to #216, meaning he was behind all of the above. So it looks like when people complain about Sutter's performance with the Penguins, they should be pointing to the lockout, not last year's numbers. He was amongst the worst in the league.
However, he faced tougher competition that year as well. With his opponents' averaging a 50.4% FenClose, Sutter was #64. Only Dupuis, Kennedy, and Spaling faced a tougher QoC, whereas the other five of his linemates, as well as Staal, faced off against lower QoC.
If we sort by ZS%, his 40.0% is #172, which is below all of the above. So the zone starts and QoC do help explain some of his poor performance during the lockout, but it doesn't excuse it. He was bad, but he was bad in a bad situation, which may be why people are more willing to forgive his performance that season.
2011-12 Carolina Hurricanes
Once again with a full season we see that in order to get every team at least 12 forwards we must cut off the list at 50+ Close minutes. That gives us 451 forwards, which comes out to 15 per team again, and when narrowing it down to just those with under .500 ZS% leaves us with 208, or 7 per team again.
At 46.1% FenClose, Sutter was #136, placing him above current, former, and future linemates Spaling and Glass. He falls in below Cooke, Vitale, Steve Downie, Adams, and Pyatt, in addition to Staal of course.
At -1.9% Relative FenClose, Sutter actually improved slightly to #131, placing him above Vitale, Adams, and Glass. However, that does mean he is below the other 4, as well as Staal.
He faced a much tougher QoC that year, with his opponents' average 50.5% FenClose making him #21, coming in ahead of all of the above.
Lastly his ZS% of 33.7% was #197, with the only of his linemates that came in below him being Glass. The other 6, as well as Staal, had easier zone starts that year. So his overall numbers weren't great, still being negative actually, but considering the QoC and ZS% he was quite successful.
2010-11 Carolina Hurricanes
Once again going with all forwards who had 100+ Close minutes we've got 445 forwards, still averaging 15 per team, and cutting it to those under .500 ZS% we are down to 216 forwards, once more 7 per team.
At 45.0% FenClose, Sutter was #163, which is once again back to being on the lower end as amongst his current, former, and future linemates he is above just Comeau, Glass, and Kobasew. He falls in behind Kunitz, Cooke, Dupuis, Pyatt, and Spaling, as well as Staal once again.
At -2.7% Relative FenClose, he jumps up to #149. That places him above Cooke, Spaling, Dupuis, and Glass as well as Staal oddly enough. However, he remains below the other four.
His opponents' FenClose was a little lower at 50.2%, but that still puts him at a decent #88. He is below Kobasew, Pyatt, Spaling, and Comeau as well as Staal but he is above the remaining four.
His ZS% of 44.3% then comes in at #137, so he had even easier starts then. He remains above Kobasew, Pyatt, Comeau, and Glass, however he is below the other four as well as Staal. While not quite as good as his last season in Carolina, he did have a decent performance considering the QoC and Zone Starts.
2009-10 Carolina Hurricanes
Our final season that we are looking at we once again have to cut it to 100+ Close minutes in order to have all teams reach 12 forwards, giving us 440 forwards at 15 per team, as well as 198 forwards that have under a .500 ZS%, giving us yet another season averaging 7 per team.
At 44.0% FenClose, Sutter is just #173 this season. That places him above current, former, and future linemates Glass and Kobasew. He is then below Patric Hornqvist, Cooke, Adams, Comeau, and Jokinen, in addition to Staal once more.
At -4.8% Relative FenClose he is just slightly better at #171. That still leaves him above Glass and Kobasew as well as below the other five as well as Staal.
His opponents' FenClose of 49.9% places him at #108, which is not as low as his QoC this past season, but lower than what he grew into as the years progressed. However, he actually comes in above Cooke, Jokinen, Glass, Kobasew, and Adams while remaining behind the other two as well as Staal.
Lastly the 41.1% ZS% places him at #161, with only Glass having tougher zone starts and the remaining six plus Staal having easier starts. So it wasn't the best performance, but his first season as a Top 9 forward and facing decently difficult QoC and Zone Starts means it wasn't overly bad.
This time to get at least 12 forwards per team we make our cutoff at 200 minutes, giving us 451 forwards, which is still an average of 15 per team, and when cutting it off at those who have less than a .500 ZS% we have 211 forward, again 7 per team.
Sutter's 43.6% FenClose is way down at #183, the only one of his current, former, and future linemates that is below him is Spaling. That puts Dupuis, Kunitz, Gibbons, Comeau, Kennedy, Pyatt, Vitale, Conner, Adams, Glass, and Cooke above him, in addition to Staal.
With a -7.1% Relative FenClose he was even further down at #204, only coming in ahead of Spaling. The remaining eleven forwards and Staal all came in ahead of him.
If we look at opponents' FenClose of 49.6% then Sutter is #162. He actually faced tougher QoC than Adams, Glass, Vitale, and Pyatt, but remains behind the remaining 8 forwards as well as Staal.
Lastly the ZS% of 41.3% was #164. He faced easier starts than Adams and Cooke, but was below the remaining ten as well as Staal.
So compared to Staal, of course Sutter is coming out as less than impressive. In fact, even comparing him to other 3rd liners, the past two seasons, particularly the lockout, were not impressive. If we judge him solely on his time in Pittsburgh then he really isn't a good 3rd line option and as such not really worth his new salary. However, the one guy that he is consistently above is Spaling, who is expected to play on his wing this year. That doesn't bode well for anybody that is expecting a huge improvement in his possession numbers this year.
This time around we can use a 300 minute cutoff to get 12 forwards on all 30 teams, giving us 502 forwards, up to 17 per team, while the under .500 ZS% cutoff drops us to 233 forwards, giving us 8 per team.
At 45.2% FenClose, Sutter was #190. He fell above current, former, and future linemates Glass and Kobasew, however he was still behind Cooke, Adams, Vitale, Pyatt, Comeau, and Spaling as well as Staal.
If we instead look at Relative FenClose, then at -3.4% he was improved to #177. He still remains above just Kobasew and Glass while behind the other six as well as Staal.
Looking at his opponents' FenClose of 50.1% puts him at #54. He remains behind Spaling, but jumps ahead of the other seven of his linemates as well as Staal.
Lastly is ZS% of 39.5%, which places him at #206 with only Glass coming in behind him, the remaining seven linemates and Staal had easier starts during those years.
So when people still look at Sutter and are hopeful that he will be better they are basing that off his performance when he was with the Hurricanes. From a possession standpoint his numbers were never great, but considering the zone starts and QoC it was impressive that he remained as middle of the road as he did. So don't expect him to be a possession machine this year, especially considering he is likely to be joined by Spaling. However, if his past performance is any indication he can indeed hold his own against a much higher level of QoC and he can handle the extreme D-zone starts, thus freeing up the more skilled Top 6 scorers to get better minutes. If you judge him solely on his Fenwick, he will surely disappoint you. However, as a complete player he can still be an asset to the team and a solid 3rd liner.