LOS ANGELES – Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter can’t quite put a finger on why he thinks he feels better as a hockey player in 2016-17 than at any other point in his career.
By most traditional measurements, Suter is on par with his normal levels. His points per-game are at 0.54, which is almost equal with his 0.56 average since he arrived in Minnesota for the 2012-13 season. He has played 27:16 per-game, which is slightly down from the last few years.
His plus/minus is a bit higher than usual at plus-24, but really that’s about the only number that says Suter is playing better hockey than the past.
“I don’t know why. Confidence?” the 31-year-old Suter said when pressed in an interview with Puck Daddy. “When you’re producing that obviously helps your mindset and when your team is playing well that helps it. I think it’s all come together right now.”
It’s hard to tell that Suter has played his best has because of his consistently excellent brand of hockey. Since the 2008-09 season, he has never finished with fewer than 37 points in a full season and never averaged less than 23:59 of ice-time per-game.
Suter’s best isn’t that much different from his worst and this reliability has helped the Minnesota Wild turn in the Western Conference’s best points percentage record over the first half of the NHL’s regular season.
“What you learn when you’re coaching him is how smart he is. How he controls the game from back there.” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “When you’re coaching against him you know he’s good but you don’t know how good and when you’re coaching him you realize how good he is.”
In the past the Wild tried to capitalize on Suter’s steady play as former coach Mike Yeo kept throwing him on the ice to keep the game in control. This led to Suter playing 29:25 per-game in 2013-14, 29:04 per-game in 2014-15 and 28:36 per-game in 2015-16.
This worked well in some ways as the Wild made the playoffs all of those seasons, but major minutes can lead to some exhaustion. Suter has always said he feeds off the extra ice-time, but Boudreau decided to lighten Suter’s in order to not overtax his player.
“You know what, if he can’t handle it, we won’t play him but there’s times when he can handle it and we need him so we’ll use him more,” Boudreau said. “I think we’re trying to limit his practice time so he can stay strong for the games.”
One of the major issues with Suter’s style is that he often doesn’t get the same level of public credit that a player of his caliber receives. Sure, he has gotten his due throughout hockey circles as a two-time Olympian and soon-to-be three-time All-Star – plus he’s locked into a rich 13-year, $98 million contract – but his game has more subtlety than flash, which doesn’t make him as aesthetically pleasing to fans as some others.
“Our record is what it is a lot because of Ryan. He’s a very smart hockey player,” Boudreau said. “What I’ve seen is probably he uses his head more than any player out there. He’s very valuable to us.”
Defensively, he’s not nearly as physical as Weber, Doughty or Burns, but he’s able to separate players from the puck with his body position and his stickwork.
“That’s what differentiates the really good hockey player from the average hockey players – guys who can do that (with a stick),” Boudreau said. “He has farmer’s strength that he can do that with one hand on the stick. All of those things are part in parcel.”
While Devan Dubnyk has deservedly gotten most of the publicity around Minnesota’s season, having Suter in front of him for almost half a game, snuffing out chances and turning the play up ice has certainly helped.
“He is in his groove, simple efficient and steady,” an NHL executive said via text message about Suter. “Everything he does is understated. Dubnyk is their backbone, Suter is their game controller.”
Though the eyeball test says he has been just fine, there may be some underlying issues for Suter this season. Per Corsica, his adjusted 5-on-5 CF% Rel has dropped off to minus-4.56 from plus-3.51 last season. From 2012-13 through last season he was a plus-0.12.
Suter said there’s no real change in how he is being deployed between this season and last season, that could lead to this drop.
“Everything is the same,” he said.
The Norris Trophy is something that is likely out of Suter’s grasp for 2016-17, and he seems at peace with this. In 2012-13, it appeared like Suter had a good shot at the award, and then P.K. Subban beat Suter by 36 points in voting. Subban had one more first-place vote than Suter.
It’s tough to tell if this gnaws at Suter – that his style more lends to wins than individual awards. Every player wants some level of award recognition, even the most understated guys. But most importantly he’s having more fun this year. There have been no major losing streaks followed by winning streaks, which had marked Yeo’s tenure. Instead this Wild team has a confidence that they should win every game, which in part is why they’re where they are in the standings.
“It’s been great. I remember one year when I was with Nashville we had a team that we went into every game … we would go into games and we wouldn’t even have to think. We just felt ‘oh, we were going to win this one,’” Suter said. “And you just had that confidence and that’s how we feel now. We feel when we’re playing well we can win most of the games and it’s a good feeling to have.”
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