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Playing the System: Ryan Suter and +-

Ryan Suter's game has come under fire as of late based on one very flawed stat. What needs to be done to improve his game? Does his game need to improve?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

After a great start to the season, Ryan Suter's season appears to be in heavy decline. He is minus-23 in his past 21 games, so obviously he's been terrible right? Well, considering +- has almost zero value as an evaluative tool, no he hasn't really been terrible. But he definitely has not been an all-star either. Want to know the simple truth to Suter's struggles? Horrible goaltending and some rough shooting luck from his teammates.  Here's his PDO with a 5 game rolling average for the season:

This is not all to say Suter has been a defensive stud as of late, but more to point out that recent claims of his demise are generally overstated and simply a reach for an attractive narrative. Suter's possession numbers indicate that he had a rough stretch of possession to finish December while recovering from the mumps, but 2015 has seen Suter nearly equal his early season possession numbers when he was being touted as a potential Norris candidate.

We've all heard the comments about how Suter's two game suspension will benefit him by giving him some much needed rest. And while a guy who plays nearly 30 minutes a night can always use some rest, the much more likely reason for Suter's "return to form" will be improved goaltending and shooting luck of his teammates. As we can see in the graph above, his overall play is in line with his performance to begin the season, so it would be foolish to blame fatigue for any issues with his play. Instead, I believe that just knowing he has to eat up 30 minutes a night on the ice has Suter purposely conserving energy on the ice. Impressive as it may be that he can remain a positive influence on possession while conserving energy, I am extremely curious to see the kind of impact Suter could have on a game while exerting maximum effort on each shift.

We can see that Suter has performed at a higher level with less minutes in the past, and with the emergence of Spurgeon, Scandella, and Brodin, it is counterproductive to burden Suter with such a heavy workload. Not to mention that he still has 10! more years left on his contract, so it would be wise to conserve some tread before it's too late.

As stated earlier, the only real overall issue with Suter's game lately was with the goalies he was playing in front of. The problem with playing defense in front of a struggling goaltender is that small mistakes are no longer whitewashed away by a save. Here's a quick breakdown of a play where a small mental mistake by Suter lead to a goal against. To be honest I probably wouldn't have looked twice at this play if Backstrom had made the save on Fisher.

While the rest of his teammates head off for a change, Colin Wilson chips the puck past Jonas Brodin and heads in on the forecheck. The two options Brodin has here are to "wheel" or "reverse". The wheel option means that there is only backside pressure, so Brodin can simply outskate Wilson and carry the puck around the net. If Brodin doesn't feel he can skate the puck out of trouble or there is a forechecker cutting off his path, he can reverse the puck to Suter who should make himself available behind Brodin as a passing option.  It's up to Niklas Backstrom and Ryan Suter to diagnose the play quickly and communicate the best option to Brodin.

This play happens multiple times in every game. It's a play that 12 year old kids are executing on a nightly basis. Yet for some unknown reason instead of opening up in a passing position for Brodin, Suter follows him behind the net only a couple feet behind him. Brodin reverses the puck to Suter, but because of his close proximity to Brodin, Suter boots the puck right to a Predators player and one pass and some below average goaltending later, the pucks in the net.

Players make small mental errors like this every game, the problem is, when a couple of them end up in the back of the net, all of a sudden they are pinpointed as struggling. Every mistake thereafter is scrutinized to a greater degree and we all suffer from confirmation bias. We're told he's struggling, we see the goals against replayed multiple times, so he must be going through something. We are then hyper-aware of every misstep going forward. Narratives will always outpace facts because people identify with narratives and facts are too easy to forget and can be difficult to prove. It's much more convenient to break down a goal against than it is to show 20 solid breakout passes. The facts in this case indicate that Suter has not struggled nearly as much recently as we are lead to believe. The facts also indicate that he may simply be playing too many minutes. With the playoffs all but out of reach, there's no time like the present to start experimenting with alternative defensive deployments.