VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – Chuck Fletcher was actually trying to comfort Ryan Suter, to calm the nerves of one of the Wild's most important players, who was feeling the weight of a hockey state on his shoulders.
Suter, off to a rocky start to his Wild career and already being sliced and diced by critics, instead took Fletcher's words as a challenge. Between Games 4 and 5 in St. Louis in late January, the Wild general manager met with Suter to let him know he wasn't "Superman."
"I didn't want Ryan to get caught up in the day-to-day stats or where he stood every single day in relation to other players," Fletcher said. "I wanted to assure him we were thrilled that we signed him and that it would take time. I wanted to remind him that he and Zach [Parise] didn't sign 10-day contracts. They were 13-year contracts, that people will form their own opinions, but that 'we're happy we have you.'"
Suter appreciated the pep talk, but there was one big thing Fletcher said that slapped Suter across the face. Fletcher estimated it would take Suter 20 games to acclimate to his new surroundings.
If true, if it actually would take the Wild's biggest minute-muncher 20 games to settle in, what would that do to the Wild in such a truncated season?
"I'm sitting there thinking, 'Twenty games is too long. If he says it's 20, I'm going to try to make it 10,'" Suter said.
Guess what? Game 11 was Feb. 9 against his old Nashville Predators. Suter assisted on both goals, including Devin Setoguchi's overtime winner, and ever since, not only has Suter taken off, so has the Wild. The Wild is 11-5-1 since, and leads the Northwest Division heading into Monday night's clash with the Canucks.
In those 17 games, Suter has 19 points and is plus-4. He not only leads the Wild with 23 points in 27 games (Jared Spurgeon led Wild defensemen with 23 points in 70 games last season), Suter is second among all NHL defensemen in both points and assists (21).
Rolling with change
Suter leads the league in average ice time per game (27 minutes, 16 seconds). And by catapulting to legitimate Norris Trophy contender status he has shown exactly why Parise aligned himself with Suter during last summer's free-agent frenzy.
"He's been unbelievable," said Parise, who leads the Wild with 11 goals. "He's really gone to another level the way he's controlling the game and controlling the play — and producing offensively, that's just a bonus for us. I mean, he plays 30 minutes a night. It's pretty impressive."
Suter, who spent his entire career in Nashville, admits he was "just overwhelmed" the first couple of weeks.
"When you make a change like that, everything changes — not just the team, everything — your routines before the game, where you're living, and I was just trying to get everything under control," Suter said. "At first, it's kind of shell-shock. New systems and new everything, and you just don't feel comfortable.
"When that happens, it feels like everything's going against you."
Parise spent his entire career in New Jersey, but because he's a forward, he often had to adjust to different linemates. He also had multiple coaches, so he knew how to adjust to tweaked systems.
In Nashville, Suter played predominately with the same partner — Shea Weber — under the same coach — Barry Trotz — for his entire career.
Naturally, most figured the adjustment would be harder for Suter than Parise.
"I believe it's tougher for a defenseman in general," Parise said. "Learning the D-zone coverage, it's easy for a winger — you're just high or low, in the slot or not. For a D-man, it's tougher, plus he played with a pretty good partner in Nashville."
Suter is a cerebral player with immense skill and "compete," so Fletcher says it was only a matter of time. It also helps that he may be playing with a younger version of himself — 19-year-old partner Jonas Brodin.
Picture of poise
Coach Mike Yeo said Suter does so many subtle things on the ice that lead to big things, it's remarkable. Suter's calming demeanor has become contagious, Yeo says, and his poise with the puck continually leads to smooth exits and quick transitions.
"You think how much of the game is played in the neutral zone, just kind of like a ping-pong ball back and forth," Parise said. "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 settle it down.
"That's a small thing, but that's the difference between just tipping a puck in or carrying it on a rush."
Fletcher said Suter has also allowed the Wild's other defensemen to be slotted into roles more suited for them and the team to be successful. He says the big reason for the Wild's improvement this season is it has the puck more, meaning it spends less time in its zone. He attributes that to all the defensemen, particularly Suter and Brodin.
Suter is just glad those dog days of January and early February are behind him.
"I heard a lot of negativity. I don't listen to the radio. I'm not going to lie to you, I don't read the paper. But when people text you every second, 'Hang in there,' you know something's going on," Suter said, laughing. "I knew it was going to be difficult. It's gotten better, and I still think it'll get a lot better than this."
Suter is a quiet guy, but Parise sensed how much the tough adjustment was eating at Suter.
"But now you can tell the confidence he's playing with," Parise said. "Around the locker room, it's not like he was pouting, but seeing him now, you can tell he feels a lot better."