Despite the slow start, onslaught of injuries and frequent roster turnover, the Wild begins the final week of the regular season close to clinching a playoff spot.
But now it’ll have to push to the finish line and potentially beyond without its No. 1 defenseman, as Ryan Suter will be sidelined indefinitely with a fractured fibula, a source said.
Suter was injured late in the second period of a 4-1 loss to the Stars on Saturday in Dallas when his right foot slammed awkwardly into the boards after he was hit by winger Remi Elie. He appeared to be putting no weight on his right leg as he was helped off the ice.
The 33-year-old is expected to undergo an MRI Monday, and that will provide the team with more clarity on the timeline for recovery and the severity of his injury — which will end a streak of 242 consecutive regular-season games played.
But that durability isn’t the only quality the Wild has counted on since Suter joined the blue line in 2012 after signing a 13-year, $98 million contract.
His 26 minutes, 46 seconds average ice time ranks second in the league, an impressive workload that’s reflective of the special-teams duties he handles in addition to five-on-five play.
With 45 assists, which is a career best and the franchise record for a defenseman in a single season, Suter is an offensive starter with an accurate stretch pass that’s keyed the Wild’s transition game. Through 78 games, he’d already matched his career high for points at 51.
And although his plus-minus has dropped off from the plus-34 clip that tied for the league lead last season, Suter has helped buoy a defense that still ranks just outside the top 10 in the NHL in goals against per game despite introducing youngsters while missing key players — adversity that’s hounded the Wild throughout the season.
Fellow top-pair defenseman Jared Spurgeon is still recovering from a partial tear in his right hamstring that was expected to require a minimum of a month to heal; four weeks from his diagnosis is April 11, the first day of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Spurgeon also sat out earlier this season with a groin strain.
Defenseman Jonas Brodin missed nine games after fracturing his left hand and needing surgery, and the Wild was without goalie Devan Dubnyk (knee) for part of December.
Up front, the absences have also been glaring. Nino Niederreiter dealt with a high left ankle sprain and fractured fibula; Charlie Coyle was out with a right fibula fracture; Mikael Granlund had a groin issue; and Zach Parise missed almost the entire first half after back surgery fixed a herniated disk that caused leg pain and weakness.
More recently, rookie Luke Kunin’s season ended after he tore the ACL in his left knee and defenseman Gustav Olofsson is in concussion protocol after getting hit Thursday in a 5-2 win over the Stars.
Overall, the Wild has lost 135 man games to injury and has had at least one player out with injury in 69 of its 78 games.
Olofsson is doubtful to play Monday against the Oilers in the Wild’s regular-season home finale, but the Wild will have enough defensemen to fill out its lineup after recalling Carson Soucy from the American Hockey League.
In his rookie debut with Iowa, Soucy recorded 15 points and a team-best plus-12 rating in 67 games. The 6-5, 208-pound 23-year-old was drafted by the Wild in the fifth round (137th overall) in 2013 and has gained helpful experience this season after turning pro. In four years at the University of Minnesota Duluth, he totaled 47 points in 147 career games. He combines a defensive-minded approach with solid mobility and a lengthy reach, and Wild brass feels he probably has a chance to contend for a roster spot next season.
In the meantime, Soucy will be in position to steady the Wild’s back end like fellow call-ups Ryan Murphy and Nick Seeler previously.
Clearly, this isn’t the first time the Wild has had to rely on reinforcements to persevere — a valiant effort that has it occupying the third seed in the Central Division at 96 points with four games to go before a possible first-round matchup against the Jets.
But subtracting as vital a presence as Suter at this juncture of the season is arguably the team’s toughest test to date.
“We will just have to do it,” coach Bruce Boudreau said after the game Saturday when asked how the Wild will overcome Suter’s injury. “There’s no crying about it. It just has to get done.”