He’s spent more time on NHL ice than any other player over the last three years, and his astounding workload is only getting heavier.
Workhorse defenceman Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild is averaging north of 29:30 per game – only two other defencemen in the league are above 27 minutes – four times in the last five contests he has topped 30 minutes, in three of them he has logged more than 35.
You might think Minnesota is simply trying to wring every drop out of a player who signed a 13-year, $98-million free agent deal in 2012.
But Wild coach Mike Yeo says it’s a product of circumstance more than design (the games have been close) and that his defensive cornerstone’s recent raft of high-minute games “is not ideal.”
At the same time, Yeo said, Suter displays an uncanny ability to recover from his exertions and in key situations “he’s the player you want to see on the ice.”
It’s worth mentioning the Wild are riding a 10-1-2 string, and have won four straight.
Put differently, why bother trying to fix something that isn’t broken?
The 28-year-old Suter, who has managed the tricky task of balancing point production with defensive zone consistency, has played more minutes than anyone since 2011, 4,023 of them in fact. While Florida’s Brian Campbell is a close second, the Panther rearguard has played more games.
Part of it is efficiency and economy of motion, say teammates, part of it is instinct, all of it is pretty much unique.
“He never seems to get tired, even in practice. I don’t know how he does it . . . he’s phenomenal,” Wild winger Jason Pominville said of his teammate (Suter wasn’t made available to speak to the media on Tuesday).
Pominville, who played with the slick-skating Campbell in Buffalo, said “he’s a much different kind of player, the way Ryan plays defensively, he’s just a machine.”
Conspiracy theorists might wonder whether Yeo, of Scarborough, Ont., is engaging in a little pre-Olympic subterfuge to tire out Suter, a Madison, Wisc., native who is penciled in on Team USA’s top pair.
A more obvious explanation is he’s just that good.
Because Suter is once again the NHL’s runaway ice time leader, his regular defensive partner, 20-year-old Jonas Brodin, has also seen heavy utilization, averaging 25:03 per game (the difference being Suter sees more special teams time).
“It’s fun to play a lot, he’s helped me a lot out there,” Brodin said after his team’s pregame skate on Tuesday. “It’s easier to get into the game . . . I don’t really feel tired out there. I played a lot in Sweden too, the national team, world juniors, so I’m very used to it.”
Only one other team, the Calgary Flames, has two defencemen who average more than 25 minutes per night, and one of them, Mark Giordano, is out with a broken ankle.
The Montreal Canadiens, who play Minnesota on Tuesday, are close – P.K. Subban averages 24:56 and Andrei Markov is at 25:16 – but still prefer to spread the minutes around more evenly than Yeo does.
Last week, Subban marvelled at how much Suter is able to play, but provided an identical assessment as Brodin, that for younger players an increased workload can be a benefit.
“When you know you’re going to be out there, you don’t force anything, you keep the game simple, the game comes to you because you’re always out there,” he said.
Since rumours surfaced a couple of weeks ago that Team Canada general-manager Steve Yzerman is cool on Subban because of worries over his defensive reliability, the 24-year-old has done a passable imitation of Suter.
In the six games since coach Michel Therrien called him out for his role in two goals against the Colorado Avalanche, Subban has played less than 25:30 only once (in his last five games his average has been closer to 27 minutes) and has only been on the ice for two even-strength goals against in 18 periods.
It’s said you only improve by measuring yourself against the best.
By that standard, it’s another occasion for Subban, the offensive dynamo who was voted the league’s best defenceman a year ago, to match wits with Suter, the man who finished second in the balloting.
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