Bill Guerin swore that things were going to be different this year. Through three games, the Minnesota Wild are figuring out what “different” actually means. There is no more deference to veteran players, and the kids are getting thrust into prominent positions with meaningful minutes.
Among the biggest differences has to do with Ryan Suter.
The moment Suter joined the Wild, the top pair’s left defense position was reserved for him. For the last eight seasons, the former Nashville Predators defenseman has assumed the first-pairing role, and not just in name only. Since 2012-13, no other player has more time on ice, even though he has played 11 fewer games than Keith Yandle, who appeared in 611 in that time span. He played against the other team’s best lines and took some of the toughest deployment.
His clout in the locker room loomed large as well. Any defenseman joined with him was considered on the top pairing. Jonas Brodin had the honor in his first season as a 19-year old. Suter chose Jared Spurgeon to be his defense partner for the last five seasons. Now, it’s Matt Dumba by his side.
On the second pair.
Out of habit, beat writers have tweeted the line-up cards with Suter listed first. However, looking at deployment, it’s clear that Suter and Dumba aren’t getting the lion’s share of the minutes.
After Spurgeon was named captain, both he and Brodin have been pulling the load. Suter’s average time on ice has fallen from 27-29 minutes per night to 22 minutes after three games. That kind of cut in ice time is not achieved by simply demoting him to second the power play. Instead, this is a conscious decision to play him less.
That’s okay, though. At 35 years old, Suter is thriving with fewer minutes. Dean Evason tapped into Suter’s fountain of youth. While Spurgeon and Brodin take on the top competition, it’s been Suter and Dumba quietly excelling. They’ve had the ability to be more offensive, and the pair is owning the shot attempts share to the tune of 60% and rank fourth in the league in Expected Goals. That’s better than Brent Burns and Mario Ferraro, Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie, and Cale Makar and Devon Toews. Minnesota’s second pair is producing at an identical rate as many teams’ first pair. The Wild’s first and second pairs are truly more of a 1 and 1a.
Nevertheless, the expected goals metric can only go so far. It might convey how well they are playing as a tandem, but the metric is moot if goals aren’t going in. Dumba and Suter can be found near the team lead for points so far this young season. Dumba has two goals thus far, including a deflection of a Suter shot in the waning seconds against the Los Angeles Kings to force overtime, that set up for Marcus Johansson’s game winner..
Dumba leads the defense corps with 13 shots on goal, while Suter, Brodin, and Dumba remain tied with eight shots each. Looking further, Suter and Dumba have combined for 48 shot attempts out of the 97 shot attempts by Wild defensemen — that’s 49.5% of the entire shot generation by defensemen.
Suter and Dumba have stepped up on offense, and the duo hasn’t allowed its defense to suffer either. But here’s the thing: they don’t need to carry the load to the degree required of them as recently as last season. Brodin and Spurgeon are sporting an elite sub-2.0 xGA/60. However, even more critical is that there’s no longer a drop-off defensively with the third pair with Carson Soucy and now Ian Cole in the fold. The third pair might only get 13-15 minutes per game, but their strong defense and ability to exit the defensive zone with puck control will be an overlooked benefit to the team.
Their competence allows Evason to feel comfortable reining in Suter’s minutes.
Still, Suter has the clout and the pedigree as one of the top defensemen in the league, even at 35 years of age. But this Wild team is different than when he signed on with them. The Wild are a team in transition and with that, they need Suter to begin the consummation of his career. The Wild no longer need Suter to be a focal point of their franchise going forward, and with these kind of early results, he might just be around long enough to see how different things become.