For about the first 10 games of the season, Wild coach Bruce Boudreau paid attention to how much he deployed defenseman Ryan Suter since he was working back from a severe ankle injury and appeared in just one preseason game.
But now, more than two months into the schedule, the Wild can rely on Suter as much as it wants — a resource that may help the team ease the sting of Matt Dumba’s absence because of injury.
“He’s fine now,” Boudreau said of Suter. “If we give him 30 [minutes], he’s going to want 35. We give him 35, he’s going to want 40. He’s a special athlete, and we know that. He’s one of the smartest players, so he can adjust to whatever ice time he gets.”
It’s been almost nine months since Suter was hit into the boards March 31 by the Stars’ Remi Elie in Dallas, a collision that broke his talus and the outside of his right fibula, and it certainly looks like he has regained his form on the ice.
Entering play Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center against the San Jose Sharks, he averaged a team-high 25 minutes, 47 seconds and boasted five assists in his previous three games. Going back even further, he was contributing at a point-per-game pace with a goal and 10 assists the past 11 times he suited up. He played 29 minutes Tuesday night.
“I’m finally starting to feel a little bit better now,” Suter said. “The first couple months I was kind of worried. I didn’t know if things would get back. They’re starting to fall into place, and I’m starting to feel more comfortable out there.”
Last Saturday, in a 2-1 loss to the Calgary Flames, the 33-year-old logged a season-high 29:49 — this despite serving a five-minute major for fighting, just the third fight of Suter’s career and the first since 2009.
Suter squared off with Flames winger Sam Bennett, the third of three fights in the first period; Dumba’s tussle with winger Matthew Tkachuk started the parade, and that period was the only one Dumba played before leaving the game. He’ll be out at least a week with an upper-body injury.
“I didn’t want Dumbs to have to do it again,” Suter said of his fight. “They were kind of targeting him, so I had to help out my buddy.”
Dumba had been skating alongside Suter before he was hurt, but the new-look Wild defense that debuted Tuesday featured a reunion on the top pairing between Jared Spurgeon and Suter since the two have been paired together extensively in the past — even this season.
Greg Pateryn was promoted to work next to Jonas Brodin, and Nate Prosser joined Nick Seeler on the third pairing.
The forward group also had a different setup, as captain Mikko Koivu returned to the lineup after missing four games because of a lower-body injury.
But while Dumba is sidelined, the focus will be on the defense to determine how it recalibrates without its top goal scorer.
Having the option to roll Suter out for nearly half the game, if not more, could help buoy the Wild until it’s back at full strength.
“The more you’re on the ice, obviously the more you’re into the game,” Suter said. “Obviously, you don’t want to see guys get hurt. If something like this happens, you gotta be ready to stand up and help out.”
Spurgeon matching up with Suter wasn’t the only familiar duo the Wild turned to with Dumba out.
Seeler and Prosser were together last season when Seeler made his NHL debut.
“He’s really easy to play with, so I’m excited to be back with him,” Seeler said. “ … We’re similar players, too, so I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a change. I’m sure we’ll get back to our old ways just like last year.”
A leaguewide roster freeze went into effect at midnight, and it’ll last until midnight Dec. 27.
During this time, players on an NHL active roster, injured reserve or with nonroster and injured nonroster status are prohibited from being waived, traded or loaned — although there are a few exceptions.
Players can be recalled during this stretch, and a player who was recalled after Dec. 11 may be loaned through 11:59 p.m. local time Dec. 23 if he doesn’t require waivers.