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Inside the Jets' biggest draft miss

Lukas Sutter was a highly regarded prospect, but today, his pro hockey dream is over

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/6/2017 (835 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Lukas Sutter hasn’t played a game in the NHL and never will.

Five years ago, he had skill, tenacity and a rich hockey pedigree — and he was coming off a stellar campaign with the Saskatoon Blades as the 2012 NHL Draft approached.

The Winnipeg Jets were clearly sold on his merits and used their second-round pick to select the kid from Lethbridge, Alta., at the draft in Pittsburgh.

It was a mighty swing — securing a burgeoning talent from hockey’s royal family — by the Jets’ organization just one year after relocating from Atlanta and, with a draft-and-develop philosophy, placing a premium on stockpiling prospects.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/6/2017 (835 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Lukas Sutter hasn’t played a game in the NHL and never will.

Five years ago, he had skill, tenacity and a rich hockey pedigree — and he was coming off a stellar campaign with the Saskatoon Blades as the 2012 NHL Draft approached.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Files</p><p>Former Winnipeg Jets prospect Lukas Sutter suits up for a development camp. Today, the former second-round pick is attending the University of Saskatchewan.</p></p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Files

Former Winnipeg Jets prospect Lukas Sutter suits up for a development camp. Today, the former second-round pick is attending the University of Saskatchewan.

The Winnipeg Jets were clearly sold on his merits and used their second-round pick to select the kid from Lethbridge, Alta., at the draft in Pittsburgh.

It was a mighty swing — securing a burgeoning talent from hockey’s royal family — by the Jets’ organization just one year after relocating from Atlanta and, with a draft-and-develop philosophy, placing a premium on stockpiling prospects.

Sutter’s selection is, however, widely viewed as Winnipeg’s biggest miss in six years at the draft table. Jets fans should note the bad luck of the NHL draft is littered with busts such as Alexandre Daigle, Rick DiPietro — and this gem that the Atlanta Thrashers grabbed with the first-overall pick in the 1999 draft: Patrik Stefan.

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his scouting crew made a shrewd move at the 2011 draft, taking Mark Scheifele earlier than he was expected to go with their first-ever pick and then plucking another centre, Adam Lowry, in the third round.

In 2012, they hit pay dirt with talented Michigan-born defenceman Jacob Trouba at ninth overall. Thirty spots later, they called out Sutter’s name.

By the fall of 2015, he was done with pro hockey.

Sutter just finished his first season as a forward with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies hockey team. He’ll be back in the classroom in the fall working on his arts and science degree, and he hopes one day to go to law school.

The now 23-year-old Sutter, whose father, Rich, played 874 games over parts of 14 NHL seasons, shouldered the weight of those expectations — from his lofty draft position to his famous family name — but the dream was shattered not only by those expectations but also by injuries that hampered his ability to perform at his very best.

Yet, he harbours no lingering regrets.

"You desperately want to reach that pinnacle. In hindsight, people don’t realize that it’s about the journey, not so much the destination. That sounds super cliché but that’s reality," Sutter said, speaking by telephone from Saskatoon.

"People are in such a hurry to get to where they want to go, especially now with the NHL being such a young man’s game. I was just like that. I didn’t realize there are other routes to the NHL. I threw everything I had at it, and it didn’t work out. I have no regrets because I really did throw everything I had at it."

In its final rankings prior to the draft, Central Scouting listed Sutter 39th among all North American skaters — most likely a late second-round, third- or even fourth-round pick.

Winnipeg pulled the trigger early, although a case could be made Sutter was worth the gamble. He fired 28 goals and produced 59 points in 70 games during the 2011-12 season with the Western Hockey League’s Blades, while racking up 165 penalty minutes. He was also defensively sound and a key penalty killer for head coach Lorne Molleken.

"I had really buckled down with my training and committed to being a hockey player at that point in my life," he recalled. "I just felt I was ready to take the next step."

Sutter said he was set on staying home for the draft but changed his mind just days before the event and flew to Pittsburgh when he started hearing his stock was on the rise.

"I wasn’t really nervous about the first round, I was just enjoying being there and enjoying the setting," he said. "I figured the next day (rounds 2-7) would probably be a pretty quick day. I’d had a good meeting with Columbus the day before the draft and with Winnipeg. Columbus picked 31st and Winnipeg picked 39th, so I figured I’d be done with the day pretty quickly and, luckily, I was."

He said he was thrilled to be a Jets prospect and loved every minute of the club’s development camp that summer.

"Those camps aren’t so much about making a statement but more about getting your feet wet and getting some form of comfort with the organization and with your peers that are there," Sutter said. "The best part of that camp was it was such a good group of young guys. It made you excited about the future when you saw the number of young prospects there you could see were ready to take that next step and become pros."

He returned to Saskatoon in the fall, but his numbers dropped dramatically during the 2012-13 season. The Blades, hosts of the 2013 Memorial Cup, were loading up for a run at the national junior crown and Sutter’s hefty role with the club diminished.

"I could make up all the excuses in the world… at the end of the day I just didn’t have the season that I needed to have the season after the draft," he said.

During the off-season in 2013, he joined Scheifele, Trouba and blue-liner Julian Melchiori in Toronto to train with former NHLer Gary Roberts. The Blades also traded him to the Red Deer Rebels that summer, but he was geared up to begin his pro career, anyway.

That fall, the Winnipeg brass wasn’t convinced. Trimming their training camp roster, the Jets didn’t even send him to their American Hockey League affiliate in St. John’s, N.L., shipping straight back to junior, instead.

"Initially, it was a shock for me, but I took it with a grain of salt and went to Red Deer and had a really good start through the first three games and then the fourth game I blew out my shoulder," he said. "I’d play four or five games and then miss a week to 10 days and then I’d play 15 games and miss a month. It was a trying year.

"I don’t think people realize the stress that kids are under at that level. When you’re a second-round pick and you’re slated to be a big piece of an organization, you learn really fast that hockey’s a business. That was difficult. And I had the benefit of coming from a family where I thought I understood the business of hockey. But you don’t realize how much of a commodity you are to people."

Sutter said by Christmas he knew Winnipeg wasn’t interested in signing him to an entry-level deal.

"I had a couple of talks (with Cheveldayoff) throughout the course of the season as to what they were thinking. My thought process was to try and do everything I could to prove to them that I deserved an opportunity in their organization," he said. "I really did want to be a part of that group. I can’t give you a definitive answer on what led to me not signing, but it got to a point where they had decided. I was playing with one arm, and it just didn’t work out."

Unsigned, Sutter went back into the 2014 draft and was selected in the seventh round (200th overall) by the New York Islanders.

But chronic shoulder troubles limited his playing time in the Islanders system to just 14 games with Bridgeport of the AHL and another 40 with Stockton of the ECHL during the 2014-15 season.

"When I was drafted that second time by the Islanders and went and played pro for that year, you realize how much of a grind professional hockey is. At that point I was 21 years old, I already had my right shoulder reconstructed twice," he said.

The Florida Panthers offered Sutter a tryout a year later and he participated with the club’s prospects at a rookie tournament in Estero, Fla., against players from the Washington, Tampa and Nashville organizations.

"I played three games in three days and by the Sunday morning when we were going to the rink I couldn’t lift my arm above parallel to the ground. With the way my body was feeling and with the scholarship opportunity (in Saskatoon) I had to make a decision. And I decided to come to school," he said.

Sutter has plenty of company among 2012 second-rounders who’ve never dressed for an NHL game. Of 31 guys chosen in that round, only 14 have played in the league. It’s worth noting the four players taken immediately after him — defenceman Dylan Blujus (Tampa), centre Mitchell Heard (Colorado) and defencemen Patrick Sieloff (Calgary) and Ludwig Bystrom (Dallas) — have played a combined one NHL game since draft day.

But blue-liners Jake McCabe (Buffalo) and Damon Severson (New Jersey) and forwards Colton Sissons (Nashville), Chris Tierney (San Jose) and Jordan Martinook (Phoenix) were taken after Sutter in the second round in 2012 and have played at least 100 NHL contests each.

He said he doesn’t feel like he failed in his bid to follow in the footsteps of his father, famous uncles Brent, Brian, Darryl, Duane and Ron and cousin Brandon.

"One of the biggest criticisms that I face is, ‘Well, you were a 39th overall pick, how didn’t you turn out?’ I didn’t tell the Winnipeg Jets to pick me 39th overall. That’s where I set myself up to be picked at that time. I couldn’t change where I was drafted, so it doesn’t bother me all that much," he said.

"I’m happy with where I’m at in life right now, for sure."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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History

Updated on Saturday, June 3, 2017 at 9:31 AM CDT: Edited

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