Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed identical 13-year, $98 million contracts with the Wild this past summer. Five games into their tag-team tenure, Parise has received universal praise while Suter hears daily reminders about his slow start.
That part bothers Wild coach Mike Yeo, who defended his All-Star defenseman Monday when asked if he senses any frustration from Suter over his uneven play.
"He's so demanding of himself and I've had to answer questions about it every day so I can imagine what he's feeling like," Yeo said. "The thing is, this guy played just about 30 minutes for us [Sunday against St. Louis]. He's doing so many good things in every game and we're asking so much of him. He's coming to a new team, new system. He's done so many good things and yet there's still talk about some of the bad things that have happened for him. A lot of them, most of them, almost all of them are out of his control.
"With a guy like that, let's be fair with our expectations. He's not here to score five goals a game. And it's not going to happen that a defenseman is on the ice and the other team is never going to score. That stuff is going to happen. What's important is that his game has been getting better every game. And what's important is what he adds to our team."
Suter received a veteran's day off from practice Monday and was unavailable to reporters, but it's probably safe to assume he's not entirely pleased with his play. He has been on the ice for 11 of the 15 goals the Wild has allowed, and he has a minus-5 plus-minus rating, which leaves him tied for 611th in the NHL out of 624 skaters. Suter entered this season at plus-43 for his career.
"You don't look at a stat sheet and try and figure out what he brings to your team," Yeo said. "For a defenseman coming to a new system and a lot of things are very different -- he's playing with a new group -- I'm very happy with what he's brought."
Let's be clear on this point: Suter has played only five games in a Wild sweater, so it's premature and just plain silly to panic over his performance so far. He's obviously a better player than he's demonstrated, and there's nothing to suggest he won't reach his usual standard once he gets fully acclimated to his new team and defensive system.
But the expectations for him and Parise became etched in stone when they wrote their names on those massive contracts on July 4. They were the two most coveted free agents on the market, and their arrival made the Wild an instant playoff-caliber team. The duo created excitement and a natural marketing campaign for the team because both are elite players in the prime of their careers whose services required a substantial financial commitment from owner Craig Leipold.
That brings certain expectations, and fair is relative to the size of one's signing bonus. That's simply the nature of being a superstar on a new team.
"The expectations have to be fair," Yeo repeated. "You don't measure what Ryan Suter does just by goals and assists. You don't get the opportunity to see the kind of person he is behind the scenes and the leadership that he brings. There's so many subtleties in his game. It's not an accident that our shots on net are up, our shots attempted are up, shots against -- besides last game -- have been down. All these things have gone up, and it's not an accident because of his game and how he helps us."
Even so, Suter looks like a guy still learning a new system and how to play with new teammates. He's not paired with fellow stud defenseman Shea Weber in Nashville anymore. Now he's surrounded by younger, more unproven players on the blue line, and chemistry doesn't form overnight or in one week of training camp.
That unfamiliarity can breed uncertainty, which leads to trouble like what happened Sunday night. Suter stood in the defensive zone as St. Louis' Chris Stewart got behind him and parked in front of goalie Niklas Backstrom for a deflection that tied the score in the third period. In overtime, Vladimir Sobotka fought off Suter in front of the goal for the winner. Those are plays Suter should make.
Yeo countered that fans and media should focus as much attention on the good plays Suter makes as well. And he doesn't buy the notion that Suter might be feeling the weight of his contract and expectations.
"I don't think he's having difficulty with the pressure," Yeo said. "I think the pressure comes from himself. Probably the more you have to answer about it, the more that compounds. I'm just focused on where his game is getting to and every game I see what he brings to our group. I know one thing, I'm very happy he's on our team."
Nobody's arguing that, but people just want to see more.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org