The Nashville Predators came very close to losing both members of their top defensive pairing this summer, but after an offer sheet scare, they did manage to hold onto Shea Weber. Ryan Suter, on the other hand, jumped ship for Minnesota, and in so doing, broke up what was, at one time and for quite some time, the best defensive tandem in the game.
With Suter moving on, the hockey world turned from speculating over whether the Predators would be able to retain both to speculating over which of the two defenders would have the most success divorced from the other.
Through 30 games, it's been Suter.
He leads the NHL in time on ice, he's second in defensive scoring to Pittsburgh's Kris Letang with 24 points in 29 games, and as the Wild surge up in the standings, he's injected himself into the Norris trophy discussion.
But that's not to say we were wrong all this time, showering praise and Norris nominations on Weber while Suter played second fiddle in Nashville. Weber really was the standout on that pairing. Still, it seems clear now that he benefited greatly from having a Ryan Suter alongside him. Now he doesn't.
But Suter does.
Weber hasn't fallen off completely or anything. He's been good alongside Roman Josi most of the season, but he's been unable to elevate his game to the level the Predators need in order to remain one of the top teams in the Conference. That's not a knock against him, really. Josi just doesn't bring out the best in him the way Suter did.
Suter and Weber weren't the best pairing in the NHL just because they're both good hockey players. It's because they played so well together. They were greater than the sum of their parts, which is incredible, considering how skilled they are. But now that they've been separated, both have been forced to make it work with someone else.
Originally, Suter struggled as well. Paired with Jared Spurgeon for the first few games of the season, he was relatively unimpressive, although the Wild were quick to point out that his underlying numbers were a lot better than his plus/minus suggested. From Twin Cities:
Suter had a plus-minus rating of minus-7 in the Wild's first 11 games, struggling in his first few games and getting burned on several occasions when he happened to be on the ice for a goal. Yeo downplayed the statistic when asked about it again Monday, Feb. 11, saying the defenseman fared much better in the Wild's proprietary metrics -- like how many scoring chances the team generated with him on the ice -- and insisted Suter had made a bigger difference to the Wild's defense than coarse numbers would suggest.
Still, the club wanted more, especially defensively. Suter was generating scoring chances, yes, but he was also allowing too many. On January 29, Mike Russo suggested this was where Suter was feeling Weber's absence the most:
Talked to Suter this morning and he obviously isn’t satisfied with his game personally right now. Boxing out and play in front of the net is the big issue.
The theory by some I know well in the game is that Suter got so accustomed to Shea Weber clearing guys in front of the net that that is why he seemed to disregard Johan Franzen in Detroit on that Pavel Datsyuk winning and Vladimir Sobotka on the St. Louis winner. Obviously that’ll need to change.
That same day, the Wild debuted a new top pairing of Suter and rookie Jonas Brodin. The two have been playing together since, probably because the immediate results have been excellent.
If you look at Suter's underlying metrics with and without Brodin, you can see where the difference lies. The opposition averages 21.93 Corsi events (shots directed at the goal, whether they reach the goaltender or not) when Suter is on the ice without Brodin. With him, that number falls to 18.02.
In other words, Brodin, a rookie, has made Suter, one of the game's best defencemen, better defensively. That's remarkable.
Come awards time, we can expect Suter to be the one that gets the love while his partner goes relatively unheralded. But Brodin need only to look to his partner for advice on how it feels to be the second guy.
When speaking of Brodin, former Wild player Wes Walz had this to say: "Arguably, he’s a clone of Ryan Suter.”
Just ask Shea Weber how much easier it is playing with one of those.