VANCOUVER – Willie Desjardins was part of the reason Brandon Sutter never made it to the second round of the Western Hockey League playoffs.
Now the pair will be working together to get the Vancouver Canucks back to the NHL post-season.
The club acquired Sutter and a third-round pick in 2016 from the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday in a deal that sent fellow centre Nick Bonino, minor-league defenceman Adam Clendening and a second-round selection next year the other way.
The most recent member of the Sutter family to play in the NHL, Brandon Sutter was with the Red Deer Rebels when Desjardins, now Vancouver’s head coach, was behind the bench with the Medicine Hat Tigers.
“He beat us while I was there twice in the first round of the playoffs,” Sutter said with a chuckle on a conference call. “We definitely had a bit of a rivalry in junior with both him and ( Canucks forward) Derek Dorsett. It’ll be fun to be on the other side of it now.”
Canucks general manager Jim Benning said the trade for the 26-year-old Sutter solidifies things down the middle for his club and will help both now and in the future as he continues with his plan of rebuilding on the fly.
“To me he’s a foundation piece for our group,” said Benning.
“He’s a playoff player. When the games mean something, that’s when he’s at his best.”
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Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said it was difficult deal Sutter, but it was a move he had to make considering the forward is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer with a US$3.3-million cap hit for 2015-16.
“He’s actually, believe it or not, one of my favourite guys and I’ve ended up trading him twice,” said Rutherford. “He understands the game, he understands how things work.”
Benning said he hopes to get a new contract done with Sutter in the next few days and is eager to see how he meshes with the group.
“He’s got high-end intangibles,” said Benning. “We have some young players that are going to make our team in the next few years. Along with the Bo Horvats and some of our other young players, Brandon will be the leader of that younger group.”
Born in Huntington, N.Y., while his father Brent was playing for the Islanders, Sutter recorded 21 goals and 12 assists in 80 gameswith Pittsburgh last season in mostly a third-line role. In 495 career games with the Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes, he has 98
goals and 87 assists.
“It’s exciting playing in Canada in a great city with a lot of support there,” said Sutter. “It’s a good, young team and I’m looking forward to getting a fresh start and trying something new.”
Bonino was acquired by the Canucks last off-season in the deal that sent forward Ryan Kesler to the Anaheim Ducks. The 27-year-old from Hartford, Conn., had 15 goals and 24 assists in 75 games with Vancouver in 2014-15, but never provided enough offence from the second line.
The Canucks have said goodbye to a number of familiar faces since their first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Calgary Flames, with goalie Eddie Lack, defenceman Kevin Bieska and forward Zack Kassian sent packing in trades.
Draft picks and gritty forward Brandon Prust came the other way in those deals, which opens up spots for some of Vancouver’s younger players to crack the lineup.
The Western Conference, and specifically the Pacific Division, has gotten stronger this off-season, and the six-foot-three 193-pound Sutter should be given every opportunity to be the No. 2 centre in Vancouver behind Henrik Sedin.
“We looked at all the teams in our division and they all improved,” said Benning. “I think doing this move, it makes our team deeper and it gives us a better chance to compete.”