Sunday, January 07, 2007

Finding Sutherby

A few days ago someone commented on the fact that because of a lack of offensive production, a player like Brian Sutherby is likely to be trade bait and should not be expected to stick around for more than a year or two. Whether that's true or not obviously remains to be seen, but before we completely write someone like Sutherby off I think this so-called slump merits another look.

To date, he has scored only 2 goals and has 8 assists through 39 games played. That puts him on pace for about 5 goals and probably no more than 20-30 points by the end of the season. Last year he set career marks when he scored 14 goals in 76 games and added another 16 assists. (Of course, up to that point his career had consisted of exactly 109 games with the Caps over three seasons, so career mark is definitely a relative term.)

So what's going on?

One potential problem may be the fact that he has been on a line with another struggling forward in Ben Clymer for most of the year. In fact, all three original members of the much-beloved CBS line from a season ago seem to be having difficulties in the offensive zone. It's hard to tell, between the injuries to Matt Bradley and the movement of Clymer from winger to defenseman and back again, whether the CBS line just needs to get their timing back or whether maybe their time as a line has run out.

It's very easy to look at the numbers, though, and assume that he's having an off year, that things aren't clicking. It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility to think that even with the overall success of the team so far this year, some guys are going to struggle.

The other possibility, though, is that Sutherby just may not be destined to be a goal-scorer. His job may be even tougher and less heralded by the media and fans - that of a solid, gritty checking line center who basically does the dirty work night in and night out. Every team needs these guys, the guys who go out there and bang the bodies around and get under the skin of the other team. We've seen it happen so many times that a solid shift like that can change the momentum of the game and often lead to a goal, or at the very least a scoring chance.

The real question becomes, how much does all of it matter?

The Caps currently rank 11th in scoring, have had fairly consistent offensive production from it's top two lines, and get the occasional goal and/or assist from the defensemen. Sure, it's always good to have more goal-scorers, but role players are important too and are so key to how the franchise is built. Is it too far-fetched to think that a guy like Sutherby could be just as valuable if not more so doing exactly what he's doing now, even if that means he finishes the season with just a handful of goals?

What he brings to the locker room and to the ice is leadership, which at such a young age is pretty impressive in itself. He's willing to step up with the occasional fight or just a good old-fashioned body check. He generates scoring chances. He's becoming a very good penalty-killer. His +/- is way down from last year. He's becoming a much more disciplined and even player, and has obviously matured since last season. Even without the offensive production, he's rarely had a bad game and seems to be clicking pretty well with Laich since Bradley's injury.

At this point it may be too early to tell one way or the other. I think we forget as fans that the development of players can take years. Not everyone comes out of the box ready to go, like an Ovechkin or a Crosby. Learning the intricacies and technical aspects of the game is a long process, yet we're often too quick to write someone off if they don't get it right immediately. You see it with someone like Eminger, as well, who everyone was picking on because of subpar play to start the year. But a few weeks of solid games later and one spectacular performance last night against Atlanta, and suddenly he's everyone's favorite guy.

Sutherby has only skated two full seasons with the Caps and has never played all 82 games. 2 of his 4 previous seasons consisted of 30 games or less, and he has only 5 games of playoff experience. So why are we so quick to throw him away for not scoring goals? If the Caps make some moves via the trade route, which we all know is still needed, I would rather see GMGM deal some of the prospects we've been piling up instead of someone who has built up some NHL experience and who has become a key element of the locker room.

Maybe Sutherby will pan out, maybe he won't. Maybe we'll see him at the podium in 5 years accepting a Caps jersey with a 'C' on it, and maybe in 5 years he'll be skating somewhere else.

The truth of the matter is that Sutherby, Eminger, and all the other little kiddies on the roster are still growing into their roles. Every game they learn something, every game they're becoming more of a team, and every game they're getting better.


E said...

it's interesting how fans form their expectations about players, who's supposed to be doing what, what they notice and what they don't. i haven't even been around hockey that long, and i can already think of a few stories that sort of mimic what you're talking about- people expect a player to put up certain numbers, he doesn't, and the fans get angry, even if his game is still strong all-around, even if he's still contributing. and you're right, sometimes it just means that the guy's role on the team ought to be something different than what the fans expect. but expectations are tricky, and i think a lot of the time a trade ends up being the easiest way out- a new team (and new fans) in a new city will more readily accept the player in a different type of role than those who've spent a couple years developing particular expectations and than seeing those not materialize.

i suppose what you hope for is that you're team is well-managed enough to understand the ways a player's talent is developing and provide the appropriate role for those skills.

CapsChick said...

It's true - as fans we're very much into instant gratification and numbers telling the tale. We forget how often things that impact a game don't show up on the scoresheet.

If everyone on a team could score consistently, scores would routinely be in the double digits. Since they're not, I think we can assume that there is more to hockey than just being able to score goals.

In the past the Capitals organization has lacked the ability to develop its own players successfully, doing exactly what fans want them to do - trade someone away if he fails to put up 50 goals his first year. In the last 2-3 years, though, that seems to be changing. The new plan, from what I can tell, is to work on making this team a consistent competitor through drafts, which hopefully bodes well for players like Sutherby.

Anonymous said...

So let me say, I am not a Sutherby hater, but I was the post of the comment that triggered this post. In fact I like many of the things that he brings to the game. But that being said, I think his opportunity is actually starting to slip away. The Caps as an organization and a team are very soon going to get to a point where they will have to start making difficult decisions about upgrading talent and identifying intangible parts that do not appear on the stats sheet. Please note I am not someone screaming trade Sutherby now, that is not what I saying in the least. But this conversation began because some people feel strongly that Sutherby has the potential to be a future captain for the club. The truth is I have to disagree, and I said as much in comments. I then went on to suggest that in fact Sutherby might not even have a future with this organization. So let me support that by commenting on the previous post.

CapsChick has made a number of potential points that I feel I should summarize and address:

1. Sutherby might be playing with the wrong line mates
a. I am not sure how this could be valid statement. He was able to have a strong year last year with either the same line mates or similar line mates. Is it possible to lose chemistry? I am sure it is, but talent should even out with opportunities. Sutherby is on pace to have nearly the exact same number of shots that he did last season. This implies he is having similar opportunities with similar line mates, but he is delivering wildly different results.

2. Sutherby might not be a scorer and instead be a gritty player who sets the tone for the team
a. So now the question is, was last season an aberration? Is this season an aberration? Or is his scoring talent somewhere in between? With players like Boyd Gordon coming on strong the team maybe forced to decide between the two of them. Gordon us younger, a better PKer, a better face off man, and so far this season has demonstrated similar scoring potential. So if you need character guys down the middle, can the team afford to keep 2 similar players? This is one of the reasons I suggest that Sutherby's future with the Capitals could be in potential jeopardy in the next season or two.

3. Sutherby might be just as key as other players without scoring
a. Every team needs character guys. In fact the Capitals have had a history of having to many character guys and not enough skill players. Again it is an unfortunate circumstance that the lack of scoring potential and the Capitals desperate need to improve down the middle might be the death knell to Sutherby’s time with the Caps. The team is going to be forced to improve down the middle if it wants to continue to improve and become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Eventually there is going to be an odd man out or two. Most people believe that Backstrom will most likely replace Chris Beech, but that begs the question then do the Caps replace Sutherby with Beech to improve their scoring from the 3rd line? Do the Caps go out and get a FA center to add scoring to the third line? Or do the Caps keep Sutherby and dump Beech? All these are difficult questions to answer but again it seems that Sutherby and Beech could both be fighting for their careers within the organization and Sutherby is not putting his best foot forward in a season where the team and the fans had extremely high expectations for him given his play last season.

4. Sutherby brings leadership to the locker room at a young age
a. I cannot argue this one since I am not in the locker room. But it appears the Coach was practically begging Ovechkin to accept the Capitals captaincy this season. I also think that the offer being made to Ovechkin and his response that he wasn’t yet ready implies that he would accept as soon as he were. So imagining that somehow Sutherby’s leadership would surpass that of both Ovechkin and the current captain Chris Clark seems like a long shot.

5. Sutherby is gritty
a. The Capitals have had a history of gritty players, but often times that wasn’t enough to ensure them a roster spot long term. The Capitals are looking to improve their talent level across the board and players who can grind it out and score some are just worth more than those that just grind it out.

6. Sutherby is a good penalty killer
a. So is Boyd Gordon and it is my opinion, but I believe in future that Sutherby will be fighting Gordon for the same roster spot. A team can only carry so many PK specialists who play the center position.

7. Sutherby has improved his plus minus
a. The team as a whole has improved their plus minus. At the end of last season the caps as a team were minus 145. This season at the half way point the team is minus 45 a clear improvement and numbers that support Sutherby’s improvements mirror that of the team.

8. Sutherby is consistent
a. So far this season he is been steady, but to be consistent in the scoring category when you are not scoring is a negative thing not a positive. Consistently not scoring goals does not a winner make.

9. Sutherby is still maturing as an NHL player
a. That is part of the problem. He needs to show improvement not regression. The team is more talented this season and it was expected that as the team improved Sutherby would also improve and that just hasn’t been the case. See some numbers below to place Sutherby amongst all the other centers that have played in the league this season.

218 centers have played this season

116 centers have more points
145 have more goals
87 have more assists
115 have better plus minus

92 centers get more ice time
135th In face off winning percentage for all position players at (48%)

So to sum it up when people suggest that Sutherby might be a captain of the future I have to be skeptical. In fact I wonder if he will be able to maintain his spot in the starting lineup or with the club. I like Sutherby and I hope he can turn his season around. But given the comparisons to other players at the same position he appears to be a weakness of the current club not a strength.

CapsChick said...

Wow...I think that takes the record for longest comment ever :)

So there you have it - two sides of a very interesting discussion that could get more interesting as we inch closer to the trade deadline (7 weeks and counting, folks). GMGM will obviously need to evaluate what we have here, what we need, and what we think we can get to fill what we need.

I can't address all the issues you bring up right now (partly because it would be an epic comment too and partly beecause it's time for bed and my brain is asleep) but I think we'll have to agree to disagree on some things, at least for now.

You do raise some interesting points, though. It's very possible that my fairy land notion of this team prevents me from seeing specific faults of individual players. My desire to keep this team as a single unit with no changes often surpasses my desire to see the necessary changes made.

I do think, however, that Sutherby's game overall has shown a marked improvement over last year and there are just some things that don't show up on the scoresheet, which is part of the reason why I'm lobbying so hard for him. I group him with Eminger a lot in this case because I think both have started out slow but seem to be elevating their game of late, and that can only be good for the team. Whether they pan out over the next year or two is another issue, but I'd like to wait and see.

Anyways, I'll definitely do more posts as we get closer to Feb. 27 and I invite everyone to submit their opinions - who stays? Who goes? Whose performance is less than expected and who has surpassed expectations? All things to talk about as we play armchair GM over the next few months...