All Brandon Sutter ever wanted was an opportunity to prove himself.
The Carolina Hurricanes have granted that opportunity to their first-round pick in the 2007 NHL entry draft and the Red Deer product is running with it.
“I’m getting a chance to play a little more and I’ve been playing with some good players, so it’s going well,” Sutter said this week, when reached at his residence in Raleigh, N.C. “I’ve been creating some chances and scoring a few goals.”
Sutter, skating on a line with Ray Whitney and Erik Cole, has fired five goals and added four assists in 12 games since being summoned from the American Hockey League’s Albany River Rats nearly a month ago. As a ‘Canes rookie last season, the six-foot-three centre was used sparingly, and after returning from an eight-game layoff due to a concussion, he was eventually demoted to Albany as Carolina management traded for veteran forwards Cole and Jussi Jokinen in a successful attempt to qualify for the playoffs.
“They were out of a playoff spot heading into the stretch and I think they kind of had two options with me — they could keep me around and play me five to seven minutes a night or send me down to Albany,” said Sutter. “I went down and got a chance to play 15 to 20 minutes a night and at the end of the day that probably helped me.”
The former Red Deer Rebels captain, who had one goal and six points in 50 games with the Hurricanes, racked up 12 points (4g,8a) in 22 games with the River Rats before being brought back to Carolina to observe the team’s run to the Eastern Conference final, where the ‘Canes lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Sutter managed one goal and four points in seven games with Albany this fall before being summoned by the Hurricanes, and has taken off from there. Finally, he feels like he really belongs in the NHL.
“I do, for sure. Last year I was in a fourth-line role and this year the team has given me a chance to play a regular shift as well as on the power play,” he said. “I started the year in the AHL, got called up a few weeks ago and just found out yesterday (Tuesday) that I’m going to be staying here, so that’s kind of a nice surprise.”
Hurricanes head coach Paul Maurice said Sutter has earned his ice time with the NHL club.
“He’s playing well and doing good things with his stick,” Maurice told the Raleigh News Observer this week. “He’s not out there because we’re giving a young guy a chance. He’s earned it. He just keeps getting better and better. He looks stronger. Even at the end of games where last year we felt he faded, you like him going out there.
“He looks like he’s actually getting faster than slowing down, which is a part of what we’re hoping — that maturation from an amateur to a pro, where as the more minutes they play it doesn’t wear a man down but actually gets him stronger and gets him into the groove.”
Sutter worked extra hard on his skating and conditioning over the summer and was a standout as the Hurricanes’ rookies took top honours in an NHL prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., in September.
Still, he was assigned to the River Rats following the Hurricanes training camp.
“We wanted him to get as much confidence as he can possibly get,” Maurice told the News Observer. “We didn’t want him to lose all he had built up during the summer and training camps playing seven or eight minutes a game here.
“He would have just rotted in so many ways. It would have taken three or four weeks for him to lose all the good things he had done in terms of confidence and conditioning and shape.”
Clearly, the strategy worked.
“For the first time, I’m on the power play and in a top-six forward role. Since they’ve given me this chance, I’ve just wanted to have fun with it,” said Sutter.
Now the focus is on helping Carolina improve as a team. The Hurricanes just recently snapped a 14-game losing streak, but in their last four outings have recorded two wins, a shootout loss and an overtime setback.
“We’ve been going through a tough stretch,” said Sutter. “There were games during that losing streak when we played well, but nothing was happening for us. We’ve played well the last five or six games so it’s kind of weird that we haven’t been winning a lot, but I think it’s starting to turn around for us. At the same time, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
The Hurricanes are awaiting the return of another former Rebel, netminder Cam Ward, who after having his leg cut by the skate of Rick Nash during a Nov. 7 game in Columbus, will be out another month.
“It was definitely a little gruesome,” said Sutter, in regards to witnessing the incident and the blood that dripped from Ward’s wound. “He was crouched down in his crease and at first we all thought that maybe he’d hurt his groin or hamstring. Then we saw the blood on the ice as he was coming off and realized he had cut himself somehow. It was kind of a freak accident but hopefully Cam will be back soon.”
Sutter is comfortable in his new role with the ‘Canes, but knows that he can’t get too comfortable.
“I can’t necessarily take a breather, but I can definitely feel like I’ve accomplished something now,” he said. “I’ve earned a spot this year and I want to make the most of it. And obviously we have to get back to winning some games.”