Late in the third period against the New York Rangers on Wednesday, Ashton Sautner was checked into the boards by a hard-forechecking Brendan Smith. Sautner’s left leg went awkwardly into the boards and he doubled over in obvious pain.
Sautner stayed in the play, however, even as he could barely put any weight on his left leg. He hobbled to the front of the net in time to intercept a centring pass and prevent a scoring chance, then struggled to the bench as quickly as he could when Tyler Motte cleared the puck out of the zone.
That’s the determination of a young player trying to find a place on a changing Canucks defence. The 24-year-old Sautner may not command the same attention as top prospect Quinn Hughes or even college free agent signing Josh Teves, but Sautner could still have a role to play as Canucks GM Jim Benning attempts to revamp a struggling defence corps.
Sautner is about as unheralded as they come. He had a solid, but unspectacular junior career with the Edmonton Oil Kings. When the Canucks signed him, it was considered an interesting gamble, nothing more. In his first couple seasons with the Utica Comets, he didn’t make much of an impression, so it seemed like the gamble didn’t pay off, as is typically the case with gambling.
Sautner just kept working and developing, however, and it showed in his third year, culminating in a call up to the Canucks. He didn’t look out of place in his five-game NHL audition in 2017-18 and suddenly Sautner had established himself as a legitimate prospect. He likely would have been called up earlier this season if he didn’t get his nose, right cheekbone, and right orbital bone broken from a dirty elbow by Eric Tangradi back in December.
“Coming out of junior, it was a little bit of a change for me,” said Sautner. “The size and strength of men is a lot different than junior hockey players. It took a couple years, honestly, down in the American league, of just figuring out how to train and the proper way to take care of yourself off the ice. All that kind of stuff goes a long way.
“Then I fast forward to my third year pro and I felt like I took a step and then I took another step again this year.”
Sautner played his tenth game of the season on Wednesday, getting in the lineup ahead of Derrick Pouliot, who was a healthy scratch. He’s expected to play his 11th game on Friday against the Devils after shaking off the third-period injury to his leg, which he called “just a tweak.”
The Canucks traded Michael Del Zotto and Erik Gudbranson this season and seem unlikely to re-sign Derrick Pouliot, who will be a Restricted Free Agent when his contract expires at the end of the season. That opens up an opportunity for Sautner to earn a larger role next season.
“This has been my opportunity to try to show the coaching staff and the management that I can carve out a role,” said Sautner, “and be a guy who can skate and move the puck and be hard to play against. That’s something that they need, that’s my job to show them that I can do that.”
So far, Sautner has certainly been hard to play against. Among the Canucks defence, he has the lowest rate of scoring chances against when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5. That’s in a small, 10-game sample size, but it shows that he can effectively protect the net against NHL opponents.
There’s still room for improvement, however. Offensively, Sautner’s underlying numbers are nowhere near as good as his defensive numbers. He needs to be more effective at moving the puck up ice. Part of that comes from NHL experience. When a player first enters the NHL, the speed of the game and the way opposing players close quickly can catch you off-guard, so young players can sometimes treat the puck like a grenade, getting rid of it immediately; an important next step is recognizing when you have the time and space to make a better play.
“That’s exactly right,” said Sautner. “Guys are so good up here in terms of getting into position so it’s knowing that you always have a guy, an outlet. It’s still hockey, but it’s another step up from the American league.”
Canucks head coach Travis Green, who also coached Sautner for two years with the Utica Comets, likes the way his game has developed and appreciates his reliability.
“Steady. Simple. Hasn’t complicated things. That’s probably the best way to describe it,” said Green.
“I think he competes hard and tries to finish his checks and is hard on guys when he can be,” he added. “He’s come a long way over the last — is it four years now, I think, that he’s been a pro. It just shows you it’s a hard position to crack in the NHL.”
One element that has helped Sautner in his second go-around with the Canucks is a comfort level with Luke Schenn, who got called up a few days before him. The two played together in Utica and have played together in several games with the Canucks.
“I was injured at the time when [Schenn] came in [to Utica], so when I got back, our coach down there put us together,” said Sautner. “It felt like we clicked right away. We’re both from Saskatchewan too, so we had a bit of a connection there...I just feel like having that guy that you’re familiar with, someone you’ve played with before, just helps with the transition of trying to make the jump to the NHL.”
Schenn’s extensive NHL experience helps as well.
“Luke’s a good friend of mine, I talk to him every day, sometimes you forget that this guy’s played almost 800 NHL games,” he said. “Just to pick his brain, he’s been great for me. He’s been such a good mentor and older guy that I can bounce off things, bounce ideas off of him. Overall, he’s just a great person too.”
While both from Saskatchewan, Schenn and Sautner have come to the NHL from completely opposite directions. Schenn was a highly-touted prospect that got drafted fifth overall, while Sautner was a late bloomer, that didn’t break out in junior until he was 19.
“At the time of Sautner’s signing, there wasn't much to get excited about in terms of his potential,” said Ryan Biech, who covers prospects and the Canucks for The Athletic Vancouver. “He was the main guy for the Oil Kings during his final WHL season but didn't exactly bust the doors down offensively. If he was ever going to make it, it was going to be as a depth defenceman who relied on his hockey IQ to effectively shut down opponents.”
Gradually Sautner grew into that exact role, becoming a defenceman that the Comets could regularly rely on to play tough minutes. Now he has the potential to do the same for the Canucks.
“His ability to read the play, not overreact, and come out on the positive side has allowed him to rise to a place that you can argue he is a legitimate NHL option for the organization over the next few years,” added Biech. “He won't be an offensive guy but his hockey sense, skating and physical play gives the coaching staff confidence to let him eat up minutes.”
Just as Sautner is hoping he can crack the Canucks lineup next season, the Canucks themselves are hoping he can be a success story for their prospect development system, which has come under fire this season. Much like Zack MacEwen, another unheralded prospect that signed as an undrafted free agent out of junior, Sautner could be a feather in their cap.
“I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Utica,” said Sautner. “It’s a great place to play hockey. For myself, being from small town Saskatchewan, going all the way out to New York, it was a bit of an eye-opener at first, for sure.”
When Sautner says “small town Saskatchewan,” he’s not kidding. Sautner is from Flaxcombe, a village with a population of 129 people. He praised the Comets for making him feel comfortable as a young player moving to the environment of a bigger city, as well as the coaching staff that have worked with him for the past four years.
“Whether it’s been Travis [Green] and Nolan [Baumgartner] my first two years or Trent [Cull], Jason King, Gary Agnew, those three guys down there my past two years, they’ve been great,” he said. “I feel like I’ve really developed my game to a point where I’ve got an opportunity to come up here, now it’s just my turn to show that I can play at this level.”