Even when he’s away from Xcel Energy Center, Ryan Suter can’t escape discussion about how many minutes he plays.
“My grandpa always gives me a hard time about it,’’ the Wild defenseman said Monday. “He says, ‘You’d better take less minutes, or you’re going to be done in a few years.’ ’’
That’s been a hot topic for coach Mike Yeo and his staff, too — and the depth of the Wild’s defensive corps means Suter might get a little more rest this season. The alternate captain has led the NHL in ice time in each of the past three years, including an average of 29 minutes, 3 seconds last season. While Suter still relishes a heavy workload, he will turn 31 in January, and he acknowledged that a lighter burden could spur his productivity and extend his career.
The development of Suter’s mates makes that possible. Yeo anticipates spreading more minutes among the rest of the Wild’s top six defensemen, a solid, reliable group that appears ready to take on added responsibility. Behind Suter and defensive partner Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin will be paired with Matt Dumba, and Marco Scandella will play alongside Christian Folin.
The goal is to give Suter 24 to 26 minutes per game, enabling the Wild’s senior defenseman to stay on the ice for a healthy chunk of time without reaching the point of exhaustion.
“To drop Ryan Suter’s minutes down considerably, I think, would be pretty foolish,’’ Yeo said. “He’s an elite defenseman in the National Hockey League. But we feel if we can take them down a little bit, that will increase the productivity for him. We have to make sure we’re utilizing him the best we can.’’
Yeo said he would put the Wild’s top six blue-liners up against any of their NHL peers. Though they are young — ranging in age from 21 to 25, excluding Suter — they have gained experience and confidence. Assistant coach Rick Wilson, who oversees the defensemen, said the group is “maturing’’ and expects the team can consistently roll all three pairs at even strength.
Suter said he is “up for whatever’’ the team decides regarding the distribution of minutes. He predicted that as long as everything is going well, he probably won’t even think about the numbers.
“Our guys have grown so much over the past few years,’’ he said. “They’re capable of playing more. I think it will be great for all of us.’’
While most Wild players did off-ice workouts Monday, injured forwards Justin Fontaine (oblique) and Erik Haula (groin) skated by themselves at St. Thomas Ice Arena. Yeo said it’s possible that both could rejoin practice Tuesday. Another sidelined forward, Jordan Schroeder (upper body), resumed practice on Sunday.
Though the coach said he is “pretty clear’’ on the 23 players he wants on his opening-night roster, he was waiting for more information on how the three injured players are progressing before committing. Rosters must be submitted to the NHL by 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Even if Fontaine is declared healthy, Yeo said, he isn’t sure the winger will be ready to play.
“He’s missed a significant portion of camp,’’ Yeo said. “There are some other parts that go into it, in terms of getting his conditioning up to snuff, getting his legs underneath him and making sure his game’s up there, too. We’ll see how it goes.’’
The American Hockey League announced Monday that Iowa Wild forward Kurtis Gabriel was suspended for three games. Gabriel was sanctioned for leaving the bench to start a fight in a preseason game against Manitoba on Saturday. He will miss the first three games of Iowa’s regular-season schedule, which begins with home games against Charlotte on Saturday and Sunday.