It took awhile, but Ryan Suter is now playing lights out defense for the Wild.
By BRIAN HALL FS North
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Looking back now,
Ryan Suter can see all the reasons why his first month with the
Minnesota Wild wasn't what he was expecting. Changing teams, systems, coaches, defensive partners; they're all the same reasons Suter didn't want to use earlier in the season as excuses when he was a minus-7 with four points in the first nine games.
Suter, off of that 13-year, $98-million dollar contract he signed in the summer, wanted immediate results. The disappointment grew in the quiet Suter.
"Oh, it was, you start doubting everything," Suter said. "You get real frustrated."
As Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher has reminded everyone, Suter and
Zach Parise, the two free-agent stars that chose the Wild following last summer's bidding war, didn't sign 10-day contracts. Those 13-year deals are in place for a reason. Minnesota's staff believes in Parise and Suter. Without the benefit of a training camp, the transition wasn't easy, especially for Suter.
Suter came from Nashville, where he had one coach (Barry Trotz) in his NHL career. He was also tied nearly exclusively to one defensive partner (
Shea Weber) in one of the league's best pairings. The Wild's defensive system also varies greatly from the
Predators' and left Suter, a seven-year veteran, being tutored by young defensemen like
Jared Spurgeon early in camp.
"There's a lot of excuses, but I tried not to make excuses," Suter said. "But looking back now, I can make them. It was just a lot of change going on."
Suter has adapted, and as his comfort level has grown and his play improved, so have the Wild, who enter Monday night's game at Dallas two points back of Vancouver in the Northwest Division (with two fewer games played) and fourth in the Western Conference. Suter, meanwhile, leads the NHL in ice time, averaging 27 minutes, 14 seconds per game. He's second among all defensemen in points (26) and assists (24). Minnesota is 14-5-1 in its past 20 games, and Suter had at least one point in 15 of those games.
"He's been unbelievable lately, and I thought he's been playing great all season," Parise said last week. "Now you could really see, I think he's gone to another level; the way he's controlling the game and controlling the play and producing offensively, which that's just a bonus for us. He plays 30 minutes a night. It's pretty impressive what he's been doing."
Suter is understated. He's not one to break sticks in anger or yell in the locker room. He's as controlled emotionally as his play on the ice. But Parise could tell the mounting frustration in Suter earlier this season.
"He doesn't really show it, but you could tell just a little bit from knowing it," Parise said. "You could tell the adjustment was a little tougher. Now, you can tell just the confidence he's playing with and being around the locker room. Not that he was pouting walking around the locker room or anything, but you can tell he feels a lot better."
Parise believes his transition from New Jersey was easier as a forward. Suter said he had a talk with Fletcher earlier in the season. Preaching patience, Fletcher told him to wait a month and see how he feels. In the past, that month would have largely been a preparatory one with training camp. This year, Suter and the Wild didn't have that luxury. So, when Suter didn't jump out of the gates, many wondered about that 13-year deal. Of course, about a month in, as Fletcher predicted, Suter's play turned.
"I was just overthinking stuff, system-wise and things like that," Suter said. "You need time to adjust and as a player you want immediate results."
Two months into the season and now Suter is being discussed as one of the leading candidates for the Norris Trophy, given to the league's top defenseman. The steady approach defensively is apparent as is Suter's ability to start the offense from the defensive zone with precision passing.
"You think about it, how much of the game is played in the neutral zone just like ping-pong ball back and forth where when you can get a flat pass in stride, it's a tough thing for a D man to do, but he's got the ability to do that, to get you going, to lead you forward and put it flat on your tape so you don't have to take that extra second trying to send it down," Parise said. "That's a small thing, but that's a difference between just tipping a puck in or carrying it in on a rush."
Suter is always around the puck and has helped Minnesota control the puck more than in recent past.
"He's always on the ice. That's part of it," Wild coach Mike Yeo joked about Suter being involved in the play so much. "He's just so good at every aspect of the game, all areas; offensively, defensively, competitive-wise, the way he thinks the game, skill. He's a very, very complete player and a guy who shows up every night. Every night he's going to do something great, and a lot of times it's something different, whether it's defensively, whether its offensively. He's definitely on top of his game."
Suter says he doesn't like attention, whether it was for the struggles early or the success now. He's receiving more attention these days than he did in Nashville, due in large part to his large contract. Even during the frustrating first month, Suter never doubted coming to Minnesota and knew his transition would take time. He just hoped to shorten the length.
"I knew I made the right decision to come here," Suter said. "That was never a doubt. It was just, 'What's going on? What do I have to do to get this going again?'"