Talented center Sutter is proving to be 'pretty important' for Penguins

| Sunday, March 9, 2014, 9:39 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Brandon Sutter still is playing for the Penguins.

He is playing pretty well, too, his teammates said.

“Great guy and a really good player, which is something maybe more people should pay attention to,” right winger James Neal said.

Sutter, a center, spent the early part of last week wondering if his second season with the Penguins would be his last. He was included in a package of assets general manager Ray Shero discussed dealing to Vancouver for center Ryan Kesler.

The deal did not happen. The NHL trade deadline passed with Sutter and Kesler remaining with their clubs.

Last Tuesday, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury echoed Neal's hope that Sutter would stick around.

“He's a pretty important guy for us,” Fleury said. “I think everybody likes him as a guy and respects him as a player.”

Quietly, Sutter has emerged as a significant part of the Penguins' in-room dynamic since joining the club's nucleus about a year ago. Players said Sutter stepped into a leadership role somewhat vacated by Pascal Dupuis when Dupuis was lost for the season with a knee injury in late December.

Like Dupuis, Sutter is comfortable in a secondary on-ice role and handling the dirty work of penalty killing. Also like Dupuis, Sutter is willing to bring perspective — often through humor — to calm tense situations.

Sutter's arrival was delayed by the NHL lockout last season. He is in only his 14th month actually playing games for the Penguins after officially joining the team at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft as part of a package from Carolina for center Jordan Staal.

With Carolina, Sutter developed a tight friendship with captain Eric Staal. Since joining the Penguins, Sutter has bonded with captain Sidney Crosby.

Clearly, Sutter could impress casual hockey fans by simply name-dropping his buddies.

He has impressed the hardest-to-please hockey followers — those into advanced metrics — with his defensive performance. Jesse Marshall, co-founder of the website Faceoff-Factor.com, said Sutter measured “as one of the better defensive forwards going into the trade deadline.”

Sutter paced the Penguins at 1.69 goals-against per 60 minutes of even-strength time on ice. That placed him 12th in the NHL among all forwards and was better than Kesler, who was at 3.12.

Kesler, 29, is at the tail end of his prime.

Sutter, 25, almost is entering his, and his worth to the Penguins is far greater than the chip he would have been in a deal for Kesler.

It was on display in a gritty shootout win at Western Conference-leading Anaheim on Friday night. In that game, Sutter failed to register a point — or even a shot — but his energy was unmistakable on each of his 21 shifts, including six in the third period.

Sutter's reward was getting a rare call to participate in the shootout. It was only his second since joining the Penguins and just his fourth attempt in six seasons.

He scored against Duck goalie Jonas Hiller, and that helped the Penguins to a second win on a five-game road trip that wraps against the Washington Capitals on Monday night at Verizon Center.

Clutch seemingly is a part of Sutter's makeup. Six of his 21 goals with the Penguins are winners.

Though he has played with 16 wingers this season and usually is tasked with matching against opponents' top scoring lines, Sutter said he is “really happy here.”

How happy the Penguins are with him will soon become quite clear.

Sutter will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. Precedent suggests he is due to almost double his current salary-cap hit (about $2.07 million), even though he is on pace to score only 13 goals, which would rate a career-low for a full season.

Shero's options with Sutter will be to sign him to a longer deal or take him to arbitration ­— or again try moving him in a trade, perhaps in another shot at landing Kesler.

“Brandon's done a good job for us and is a good player in this league,” Shero said. “He's a young player, hopefully an improving player. He's a big part of our (No. 1-ranked) penalty kill, and every goal he scores seems to be a big one.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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