Nicholas J. Cotsonika's weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week's topics include Ryan Suter’s emergence for Minnesota after a “shellshock” of a start; high praise for 19-year-old Jonas Brodin; Teemu Selanne’s toughest season; realignment and expansion updates; and the Ducks’ biggest breakthroughs and surprises.
FIRST PERIOD: Suter starting to step it up for the Wild
Ryan Suter is finally starting to look like the star defenseman the Minnesota Wild thought it was getting last summer when it signed him to a 13-year, $98 million contract.
Wait. Scratch that. Suter is already starting to look like the star defenseman the Wild thought it was getting. Because when you consider the circumstances, Suter is actually making a quick transition.
“At first, it was kind of shellshock,” Suter said. “It was like, ‘Oh, no. What am I getting myself into?’ But things are starting to settle down. It’s getting a lot easier.”
No one in Nashville wants to hear this, but it was hard for Suter to leave the Predators as a free agent. He had spent seven NHL seasons in one city with one coach (Barry Trotz) and one partner (Shea Weber). He knew his teammates. He knew the system. Heck, he helped design the system with Trotz and Weber.
“I kind of helped form what we wanted to do,” Suter said. “Now it’s kind of starting from scratch.”
Suter signed with the Wild in July, but he didn’t really join the team until January thanks to the NHL lockout. He was getting used to a new city while his wife was expecting a new baby. He was getting used to a new coach (Mike Yeo) and new partners (several). He went from Tom Gilbert to Jared Spurgeon to Jonas Brodin, then back to Spurgeon, then back to Gilbert, then back to Brodin. He was getting used to a new system – the Predators basically play man defense, the Wild zone – and he was thinking too much instead of reacting naturally. He said he had to reprogram his brain.
And he had to do it all with only a week of training camp and no preseason games, with heavy expectations. Zach Parise also signed a 13-year, $98 million deal, but his transition wasn’t as hard because he is a Minnesota native and a winger. Though Suter is quiet by nature, Parise could sense his frustration.
“He doesn’t really show it,” Parise said, “but you could tell just a little bit.”
Suter said it “probably took a good three weeks to a month to finally start feeling better.” In other words, it took about as long as a normal training camp and preseason.
Three weeks ago, Suter’s wife delivered a baby girl. For the last 11 games or so, Suter has had the same partner. Brodin has been impressive for a 19-year-old rookie – more on him in the Second Period – but the most important thing for Suter has been consistency. He has developed chemistry with Brodin and the forwards, like a quarterback with his receivers, putting the puck flat on their tape so they can carry it on the rush instead of tipping it ahead.
“He’s been unbelievable lately,” Parise said. “Now you can really see. I think he’s really gone to another level, the way he’s controlling the game and producing offensively.”
Suter was minus-7 in his first nine games. He had four points in his first 10 games. But entering Thursday night, he at least had an even rating in his past 16 games, and he had just gone on a seven-game point streak, one short of his career high. His 18 points tied him for sixth among defensemen, and they translated to a 58-point pace over an 82-game schedule. His career high is 46 points. He led the NHL in average ice time at 27:26 per game.
“Sometimes we underestimate the human impact of these type of moves, whether it’s trade or free agency, for any player,” said Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher. “Once you go to a new environment, it does take some time to get completely comfortable.”
So imagine when Suter gets completely comfortable. Remember that he’s only half of a shortened season into a 13-year deal, and he has a high standard for himself, and he and the Wild, rich in young talent, have a lot of growing to do together.
“I’m still struggling, but not as bad as I was early on,” Suter said. “I just don’t feel comfortable – 100 percent comfortable. It’ll get there. It just takes time.”
SECOND PERIOD: Rave reviews for teenage defenseman
Brodin will not contend for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year. Voters rely on statistics, and Brodin’s are not impressive – three assists, minus-2, in 22 games entering Thursday night. But he might contend for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman one day.
Listen to legendary coach Scotty Bowman, who is now a senior advisor to the Chicago Blackhawks. He said Brodin and the Phoenix Coyotes’ 21-year-old Oliver Ekman-Larsson would be considered “among the top half-dozen defensemen in the league” in a couple of years.
Listen to those who see Brodin every day. There is a reason the Wild has paired him with Suter and given him so much ice time against top competition. He entered Thursday night averaging 22:02, second among rookies. He was only 13 seconds behind the Edmonton Oilers’ Justin Schultz, who is 22 and has received much more attention.
Everyone raves about how well Brodin skates, how he keeps good gaps, how he shows so much poise. Even more amazing, he suffered a broken collarbone in the AHL on Nov. 2, missed two-and-a-half months, came back for one game with the Houston Aeros and then jumped straight into the NHL.
“To be honest with you, you’ve got to watch him live to be able to appreciate everything that he does,” said Wild winger Cal Clutterbuck. “He can do it all. His skating ability, to me, is what stands out. His ability to just get himself out of pressure is pretty incredible for a 19-year-old kid.”
“You would not expect a guy who has played 20 games to be pulling a spin-o-rama and then throwing a backhand,” Parise said. “It’s unbelievable the confidence that he’s got with the puck. That guy is going to be an incredible player in this league. He’s already playing great, but it’s going to be awesome to watch him.”
“He does a lot of subtle things that maybe don’t stand out to the casual observer, unless you’re watching him in particular,” Fletcher said. “We feel as he matures and gains confidence in the NHL that the offensive part of his game will evolve. But right now defensively he does a good job for us.”
How much offensive upside does Brodin have? That remains to be seen. Brodin hasn’t had much of a chance to develop that part of his game. He played in the Swedish Elite League as a 17- and 18-year-old.
“I’m sure the coaches in Farjestad weren’t telling him to go with the puck,” Fletcher said. “I think they were telling him to defend, don’t make mistakes and keep it simple. … Like any 17- or 18-year-old player, you’re trying not to get noticed.”
It hasn’t been much different as a 19-year-old in the AHL and NHL, which is why Brodin isn’t getting noticed. But he shoots well and passes well, and if he keeps this up, the accolades will come.
“I think he certainly has a chance to be a real good defenseman in this league for a long time,” Fletcher said. “He’s 19, and he’s only going to get better as he gains confidence and gains experience and begins to understand the personnel in this league and what they can and can’t do.”
THIRD PERIOD: ‘Absolutely’ the toughest season that Selanne has experienced
Teemu Selanne seems like he could play forever. He’s in great shape. He’s enthusiastic. He started the season with 14 points in his first 11 games.
But he’s 42, and this crazy, compressed schedule has caught up with him. He has only four points in his past 14 games.
“We’re right now in a span where we play 25 games in 44 nights,” Selanne said. “It’s a challenge. I try to rest more. I try to take more days off and just try to recover as fast as you can, because it’s brutal. All the traveling is tough. It’s a challenge for young guys also, but …”
“When you get older,” he said, “it’s even tougher.”
Is this the hardest season he has ever experienced?
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Absolutely. The whole package. When you play five games in seven nights on the road, with all the traveling, it’s not easy. But winning helps. That’s the thing.”
The Ducks entered Thursday night with the second-best record in the NHL at 19-3-3. They were only four points behind the Chicago Blackhawks with a game in hand, despite Chicago’s record-setting, season-opening 24-game point streak. Anaheim was an incredible 11 points ahead of the rest of the West.
But Selanne turns 43 on July 3, and he will have another decision to make in the summer. When reminded that next season won’t be like this, especially with realignment sorting teams by time zones, Selanne just laughed again.
“It’s going to be easier,” he said.
He didn’t say anything else.
OVERTIME: Realignment answers, expansion questions
The NHL’s board of governors has approved realignment. With 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West – creating imbalanced odds of making the playoffs, plus a wild-card format that doesn’t necessarily keep the first rounds within the divisions – the league looks ripe to add two new teams in the near future.
Yet the league insists expansion is not in the works. Why not?
The owners would receive hefty expansion fees, and the fees wouldn’t count as league revenues. The players wouldn’t get a cut.
Even though the salary range is tied to league revenues, the cap and floor wouldn’t necessarily rise as the new teams generated revenue, because the computation would involve dividing by 32 instead of 30. It would not necessarily make it harder for struggling teams to keep up.
But each owner would receive only 1/30 of the expansion fees. So the fees are viewed as more of a short-term boost than a huge windfall.
There remains a lot to iron out in Quebec City, suburban Toronto and Seattle.
And the first thing’s first. The NHL needs to determine the fate of the Phoenix Coyotes, the team it bought out of bankruptcy and has been unable to sell. It doesn’t want to relocate the Coyotes or anyone else, but it needs to rule out relocation before it can expand.
The NHL needs to make sure it has 30 healthy franchises before it can grow to 32.
SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL
– Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf scored 11 goals last season, a career low. He put up 57 points, the second-lowest total of his career and the lowest since his rookie year. But he entered Thursday night with 10 goals and 31 points, the most in the West. Getzlaf, who has a 2-year-old and a 2-month-old at home, said he had to strike a better balance between family and hockey. “I had to learn to separate the two,” said Getzlaf, who just signed an eight-year, $66 million extension. “It’s not easy when you’re trying to distribute your time in different places, especially going through a struggling season. That was something I had to learn to deal with.”
– It’s incredible that the Ducks have struck gold with the defensive pair of Sheldon Souray and Francois Beauchemin, both of whom entered Thursday night with matching plus-17 ratings. Souray was exiled by the Oilers, spending 2010-11 in the AHL, resurfacing with the Dallas Stars last season. Beauchemin, a left-handed shot, is playing the right side for the first time since junior – and he left junior in 2000. “I’ve been feeling really good on the right side, for whatever reason,” Beauchemin said. “I didn’t know how I would adapt to it. … Playing the right side, sometimes you’re on your backhand getting passes. But I’ve adjusted well.”
– Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller entered Thursday night 6-0-1 in his past seven games, with a .931 save percentage. “Goaltending is so much about how you feel out there, being confident in yourself,” said Hiller, who was 3-2-1 in his first six games, with a .871 save percentage. “You have to kind of get in a rhythm. It wasn’t easy the first few games, and it seems like it’s picked up.”
– Why did NHL executive Rob Blake reference Corey Perry’s four-game suspension in 2009 while explaining the four-gamer he got this week? Isn’t there an 18-month statute of limitations? Well, a player can be considered a repeat offender based only on his record in the past 18 months, but that is for the financial hit – whether he forfeits salary based on days or games missed. The department of player safety is free to factor in a player’s entire history when determining a suspension.
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