The soon-to-be 27-year-old veteran of all four of the Checkers’ AHL seasons, including the last three as team captain, is set to become an unrestricted free agent for the fourth year in a row. In each previous instance, he re-upped for one-year, two-way contracts, each signed more quickly than the last, that saw him split time between occasionally filling in on the Hurricanes’ fourth unit and handling top-line duty in all situations for Charlotte.
Will the fourth time be a charm?
“I’m definitely not against coming back,” Sutter said following this spring’s exit meetings. “Carolina gave me a good chance this year and I’m willing to go work for another opportunity. If you do end up in the American League, Charlotte is a great city. I love it here, I love the guys and I love the coaches.”
- Finished the season ranked third on the Checkers’ all time point (142) and assist (86) lists. Ranked fourth in goals (56) and games played (255) and was second in penalty minutes (273)
- Ranked fourth on the team with 44 points in 62 games, including 29 assists that also ranked fourth on the team and tied his career high set one season prior
- Played a career-high 17 NHL games with Carolina, scoring two points (1g, 1a), including his first NHL goal since his NHL debut with Calgary on Dec. 23, 2008
- Recorded a Gordie Howe Hat Trick with a power-play goal, two assists and a fight vs. OKC on Jan. 24
- Played his 500th professional game at Hershey on March 2
- Finished the month of March with 15 points (7g, 8a) in 16 games
Sutter would go on to play five more games with the Hurricanes – an early January stint that produced two points, including his first NHL goal since his NHL debut with the Flames just over five years earlier.
Though used to the occasional shuffling between leagues, and the dramatic and sudden change in ice time that comes with it, Sutter admitted that his most recent experience was the toughest adjustment. It didn’t help that his first six AHL games of the season were all losses as the Checkers slid into a November funk from which they never fully recovered.
“I’d say (my season) was kind of like the rest of the team,” he said. “It was hard work this year to kind of get the ball rolling. I don’t know if it was starting at the top of the year and not playing as much to coming down here and taking a bigger role and getting the legs under me to play that kind of minutes, but whatever the reason I got off to a slow start and had a stronger finish. I wish I would have had a better effort for the whole season.”
To Sutter’s point, he scored just one goal in his first 18 Checkers games of the season, even though the assists were coming at their usual rate. At the end of the day, he was actually able to build on the previous season’s offensive breakout with 44 points (15g, 29a) in 62 games, the best scoring pace of his seven AHL campaigns. Again mirroring the rest of the team, March was his best month with 15 points (7g, 8a) in 16 outings.
As was the case one year ago, Sutter knows that offensive production won’t necessarily help him earn a permanent NHL place. It certainly won’t hurt, but his meal ticket will continue to be the gritty depth role he’s filled in the past, one he may get an opportunity to fill once again. At an even six feet and 200 pounds, he may not have outstanding size, which has been identified by new Carolina General Manager Ron Francis as an area of need, but he certainly has the style of play with which it would associate.
Even if he were to re-sign and begin the season in Charlotte, he could be at the front of the list for recalls as the stable of pro prospects is expected to trend in a younger direction. With that in mind, the continuity of a returning captain would be instrumental in easing that transition.
The next step will be up to the restructured management team in Carolina and how they might view him, and the rest of the organization’s plans, moving forward. As far as Sutter is concerned, it sounds as though he’d be willing to give it another shot.
“My wife and I are starting a family now, so that’s going to factor in to my decision a little bit with staying in a place where we’re comfortable,” he said. “Other than that, you want to find a place that’s going to give you an opportunity and hopefully that’s here, but you have to do what’s best for you, your family and your career.”