In a season that has had a few too many losses on the ice, the Carolina Hurricanes' biggest gain has come in the development of a gangling center from Red Deer, Alberta.
Brandon Sutter is a bit sketchy when it comes to guessing his weight. He still looks more like a shooting guard for the Butler Bulldogs than a rugged NHL forward.
"I'm anywhere between 180 and 185 pounds," the 6-foot-3 Sutter said last week.
But at 21, there's still a lot of time for growing. And there's nothing sketchy about his play.
Sutter began the season with the Albany River Rats, in the American Hockey League. He will end it as the Canes' No. 2 center, his position on the team secure, his future with the Hurricanes very promising.
"In a four- or five-month period of time, he has proven he's one of the best young players in our game," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "He may not hit the 40-goal plateau, but he's one of those guys where his best stat will be our team's wins and losses."
In the Canes' 4-1 win Monday in Atlanta over the Thrashers, Sutter lost part of a tooth. But he scored his 19th goal of the season and earned an assist on the winning goal by Jussi Jokinen. He's used on the power play, he kills penalties and he may be the Hurricanes' smartest player on the ice.
"At 21 years old, he's the defining guy in our lineup, and I know that's a lot to put on him," Maurice said after the game. "He's something special if you love the game of hockey and you watch the small movements and the details and the sticks and all those things. His play away from the puck is just fantastic at that age."
It's easy to say it's in Sutter's blood. His father, Brent, is a former NHL player and the coach of the Calgary Flames, and it almost seems as if every male relative in Sutter's family has played in the league - the hockey pedigree may be unmatched.
But Brandon Sutter had to make his own way. The Hurricanes' first-round pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, he had to prove he had more than a famous name going for him.
Sutter helped Canada win the 2008 World Junior Championship. He was a star with the Red Deer Rebels, a Western Hockey League junior team owned and coached by his father.
Still, there were questions. Could he score in the NHL? What about that skinny frame? Could he take the physical pounding?
One thought was that Sutter could become a solid third-line NHL center, but that it might be his ceiling.
But to see Sutter now is to see a young player growing before your eyes - physically, on the ice.
He's fitter, stronger. It shows in his skating stride, in the way he can snap off his shot.
"Obviously, it's tough to gain any weight in the season, but I've done a much better job of keeping it on," Sutter said.
Sutter said an ideal weight would be about 200 pounds, and that his goal would be to come back next season at 190.
"But as long as I'm staying strong and keeping my strength up I'll be all right," he said.
Sutter scored one goal in 50 games as a rookie last season.
His added scoring this year, he said, comes in being stronger getting down the ice and around the net, but also in being wiser about the league.
While Sutter has more than 1,000 minutes of ice time in 65 games this season, he has been called for one two-minute minor penalty this season, on Dec 18. Sutter remembers the game and the moment well.
"Florida, hooking," he said, smiling. "We were on the power play, and I hauled the guy down. It was a fair call."
Why only one trip to the penalty box?
"I don't know why. It's weird," he said. "I try not to hook or hold. It's all about body position, I guess.
"More than anything, I don't want to be sitting in the box."
Sutter wants to be on the ice, helping his team. Growing, developing.
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