Ryan Suter is perhaps off to his best start in a Wild uniform. He has 4 assists in his first 5 games, but that is mostly gravy (or sauce, depending on what you want to call it). More important is that he's seemed to be extremely effective in all aspects of his game- the power play, the penalty kill, and at 5v5. Yes, we're only talking about 5 games, but if his early-season performance holds up throughout the year, this will be the first season in which Suter lives up to his Norris-caliber billing.
The reason? It could be a number of things- great health, improved chemistry with defensive partner Jared Spurgeon, or even just small sample size. But let's not kid ourselves- the biggest difference between the last three years and now is Suter's ice time.
After spending his first three seasons logging 27:17, 29:25, and 29:04 a night, there's no doubt that his game suffered under the weight of that workload, particularly come playoff time. Suter always seemed to play too conservatively, he hardly ever expended energy to generate offense (even on the power play), and his ability to control play disappeared.
With it pretty firmly established that absurd ice time = a diminished Ryan Suter, the Wild came into this season looking to reduce Suter's minutes. This is certainly an easier choice to make now than three years ago, as options like Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Marco Scandella have all stepped up to become legitimate Top-4 options. And like I said at the top of the article, it's worked out well.
Maybe too well?
In last night's game against the Ducks, Suter cracked the 26 minute mark for the second time in as many games, including Saturday's Kings game, where he logged 28:43 on the second night of a back-to-back. Granted, the Kings game went to overtime, and Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba have struggled early on, so this could've been the right call. But left unchecked, we could see an eerily similar pattern to last year.
Wearing Suter out will take away from the things Minnesota is doing well right now. For example, the Wild's power play has gotten off to a good start this year, and it's being ran through the aggressive, quick puck movement of Suter and Zach Parise. With that strategy working so well in the early goings, how can the Wild risk returning to the nightmare of Suter's lackadaisical, energy-conserving perimeter play that defined the man advantage in Minnesota last season? With Suter being the team's best possession-driver in reasonable minutes, why would they want to inch towards the practices that made him a non-factor in that department?
Furthermore, the Wild have no reason not to rely on their young defensemen. Spurgeon's a bona-fide top-pairing veteran with 300 games under his belt, they gave long-term deals to Brodin and Scandella last season, have a great prospect in Dumba, and solid young depth in Christian Folin, Gustav Olofsson, and Mike Reilly if someone fails. With that much talented depth along the blueline, the Wild can afford to prioritize keeping Suter fresh. Falling back on the habit of over-working Suter will merely render him less effective, and waste the talent behind him.
Maybe two games of extended ice time for Suter is nothing to worry about, and they'll keep playing him at around 25 minutes a night. Old habits die hard though, and two games could easily become two weeks, and then a month, and then half the season. Suter's a competitor who wants to play as much as he feels he can handle, and Yeo and the coaching staff clearly trust him in crunch time above all the other defensemen. But as Yeo has done with respected veterans Parise and Mikko Koivu, he has to realize that the reward of keeping Suter at 100% deep into the season out-weighs the risk of losing a few points in October by giving some of Suter's minutes to less-experienced players.