By any standard, he should have been exhausted. But less than 10 hours after Tuesday’s NHL playoff opener against Chicago — in which Ryan Suter played 41 minutes, 8 seconds — the Wild defenseman was answering an 8 a.m. wake-up call.
Coach Mike Yeo had predicted that Suter wished he could have played even more, and he was right. Suter followed up the 2-1 overtime loss by facing his toddler son, Brooks, in a spirited game of mini-stick hockey to start his day. Statistics were not available, but it’s safe to assume the 28-year-old had to be dragged away for breakfast.
Wild players, coaches, fans and opponents have marveled all season at Suter’s stratospheric ice time, which averaged an NHL-high 27:16 during the regular season. Forward Zach Parise called Suter’s 41 minutes on Tuesday “unreal.” Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook proclaimed it “crazy.” Goaltender Josh Harding, who benefited from Suter’s support in a surprise start, said “it seemed like he was out there the whole game.”
Actually, Suter said, that would have been fine with him. Whether it’s a mini-stick game at home or the NHL playoffs, he wants to see as much action as possible — and in a logic-defying twist, he feels no pain as the minutes mount. The day after the Game 1 loss, Suter said he felt ready for Friday’s Game 2 at Chicago.
Despite the rigors of a compact 48-game schedule, he is in a far more comfortable place now than he was the first weeks of the season. Before Suter dazzled fans with his ice time, they dissected his slow start, wondering when they would see the talent deemed worthy of a 13-year, $98 million contract. They have their answer now, as Suter has become a favorite for the NHL’s Norris Trophy while leading a young defensive corps.
“You don’t think about it,” Suter said of his minutes, which topped the NHL for the first time in his eight-year career. “You just go out and play. I enjoy playing a lot of minutes; I feel like the more you play, the more you’re into the game.
“I don’t really have a routine. I just try to eat good and sleep when I can. It’s all mental, I think. I’m just playing a lot of hockey.”
And playing it exceptionally well. Suter finished the regular season with four goals and 28 assists, ranking second among NHL defensemen in assists and third in points with 32. He has been among the league’s leaders in ice time since 2010-11 and increased his average for the third consecutive season, establishing a career high.
He struggled early
During those massive minutes, Suter gives the Wild a broad array of skills. He is a calming, steady presence defensively, a master of his craft who reads the game well and is rarely out of position. He sparks the Wild’s transition game with his instincts and his smooth passing. He is instrumental to the power play and penalty kill.
Though the Wild knew exactly what it was getting when it signed Suter and Parise to blockbuster deals last summer, it took time for Suter to find his form in Minnesota. He had played his entire NHL career in Nashville, most of it alongside defensive partner Shea Weber. Fans expected him to be an instant sensation, but with no training camp or exhibition games to preface a lockout-shortened season, Suter had no transition period.
He had to adjust to a new system, new coaches, new teammates and a new culture under the pressure of playing games that counted. While he struggled through the first 10 games, his coaches remained patient.
“There was a learning curve for both sides,” said Wild assistant coach Darryl Sydor, himself a workhorse defenseman during 18 NHL seasons. “Give him credit; he stuck with it and bought into it. We knew it was going to turn around.”
Sydor understands Suter’s desire to play as many minutes as he can. Frequent shifts make it easier to stay in the rhythm of the game, he said, and Suter knows how to manage his ice time. According to his coaches and teammates, Suter’s efficiency and composure mean he does not waste any physical or psychic energy. He also is careful about rest and recovery.
A role model
Suter has shared that knowledge with other Wild defensemen. He has been the ideal mentor for rookie defenseman Jonas Brodin, his defensive partner for much of the season. Under Suter’s tutelage, Brodin has become a candidate for the NHL’s Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the league.
Suter has helped Brodin in the weight room, briefed him on opponents’ tendencies and eased his acclimation to the NHL. Brodin already is mimicking him. He led all rookies with an average of 23:12 minutes per game during the regular season, and he likes to repeat two common Suter themes: It’s fun to play a lot, and no, he doesn’t get tired.
Not all of Suter’s teammates understand his stamina.
“He comes off the ice after what seems like a two-minute shift, and he’s not even breathing heavy,” Parise said. “I don’t get it.”
Sydor said that even late in games, he sees no dropoff in Suter’s intensity or will. Yeo noted that Rick Wilson, who manages the defensemen, monitors all his players for signs of fatigue and will dial back their ice time if necessary. As long as Suter feels good, Yeo said, he wants him on the ice.
While the Blackhawks marveled at Suter’s 41 minutes in Game 1, they hope their depth and firepower can neutralize him as the series continues.
“We want to force him to make as many tough plays as possible,” defenseman Johnny Oduya said. “We want to try and wear him down, even though that’s very tough.”
The Blackhawks couldn’t do it in Game 1. Neither could his son in the morning-after mini-stick matchup. With two days of rest — and a desire to carry as much of the load as his team needs — Suter is eager to dive right back in.
“You’re going to have good shifts, and you’re going to have bad shifts,” he said. “It’s about the next shift. We can’t get down. We have to clear everything and be ready to go.”