Zulgad: After slow start, Ryan Suter now giving Wild their money's worth
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The knee-jerk reaction after watching Ryan Suter early in this lockout-shortened NHL season was to wonder what the Minnesota Wild had gotten themselves into.
Suter was a minus-7 in his first nine games and had four points in his first 10 games. More importantly, his performance did not pass the eyeball test. The veteran defenseman's play came nowhere near matching the expectations for a guy who, along with winger Zach Parise, had signed a $98 million, 13-year free-agent contract on July 4.
While hitting the panic button was the easy thing to do, if you took a step back and a deep breath, as coach Mike Yeo did, the more reasonable reaction was to realize that Suter was simply trying to find his way and adjust to the Wild's system.
Suter had spent his first seven seasons playing with the Nashville Predators and for much of that time he had been paired with another standout defenseman in Shea Weber. It should have come as no surprise that without Suter alongside him on the blue line, Weber also struggled to adjust when the season began in late January.
"We didn't talk about it," Suter said when asked if he and Weber ever discussed the transition. "I'd see him after the games (the teams played) and we were like, 'Hang in there, stay positive.' It's not something that you talk about, I guess."
Suter had known everything about what Predators coach Barry Trotz wanted, but had to adjust to Yeo's on-ice expectations without the benefit of a preseason game or even close to a full training camp.
"We knew it was going to take time," Suter said. "When Zach and I signed here in July, we knew that this team had the pieces. We knew it was going to take time to get it together and it's still a work in progress."
That might be the case, but even the understated Suter can't deny the massive progress that has been made since he and the Wild got off to a rocky start.
The Wild played their 30th game on Saturday and improved to a Northwest Division-leading 18-10-2 (38 points) with a 2-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks at Xcel Energy Center. It was the Wild's fifth consecutive regulation victory, their longest stretch of regulation wins since Dec. 2-10, 2011.
The Vancouver Canucks beat the Los Angeles Kings, 1-0, on Saturday and also have 38 points but the Wild's division rivals have two fewer wins.
Suter assisted on both of the Wild's goals Saturday - an even-strength tally by Parise in the second period and a power-play goal by Jared Spurgeon in the third - and now has a team-leading 24 assists. He is tied for the team lead with 26 points and already ranks fifth on the Wild's all-time list for most assists by a defenseman in a single season.
Suter can't pinpoint exactly when things turned around for him.
"I don't know," he said. "There were different points throughout the year and throughout every year that things are going well. At the beginning of the year, I was struggling picking up the defensive zone coverage and things like that. I'd say maybe 10 games in I started to really feel (it). Ten, 15 games in, I started to not have to think and you can just go out and play. That made a big difference."
Asked to elaborate on that difference, Suter said: "It's so much easier when you can just read and react and you don't have to sit there and think, 'OK, so where am I supposed to (be)?' It just makes the game a lot easier."
Suter strikes you as the type of guy who would rather undergo dental work than talk about himself.
"It's all about the end result," he said in attempting to downplay his success. "I say it every time, it's all about winning. You get judged a lot more when your team wins and it's a good thing we have going right now."
Thankfully, Suter's teammates are far more willing to talk about his play.
"It's huge," said goalie Niklas Backstrom, who made 33 saves Saturday to earn his first shutout since Feb. 19, 2012. "I was just used to playing against him so I didn't know how it feels to play behind him, but he's playing 20-plus, 30 minutes of solid hockey every night and I think he shows all the other guys how to play.
"It's not just him. All the other guys are playing great and I think (Suter) is a big part of that. He plays the right way, he does all the small details, he does it the right way and he helps the guys. It's fun to play behind him."
Backstrom also could have included rookie standout Jonas Brodin in that analysis. The coaching staff spent the early portion of the season looking for a defensive partner for Suter. Jared Spurgeon and Tom Gilbert were given turns but Brodin eventually entered the mix.
He and Suter easily have become the Wild's top tandem on the blue line. On Saturday, Suter played a team-high 28 minutes, 29 seconds and Brodin logged 24:57 of ice time. Brodin's ice time was the second most for a Wild player in the game. These type of minutes are now the norm for both.
"He's a good player, that's the bottom line," Suter said of Brodin. "I don't know how many different ways I can answer it. ... The more you play with someone, obviously the easier things get. It's good knowing that he's going to make a good play nine times out of 10."
After Suter had concluded his group interview on Saturday, a reporter ran a theory past him about his early-season issues that went beyond the notion that he simply had to adjust to Yeo's system and his new teammates.
It turns out that when the Wild opened on Jan. 19 that Suter's wife was pregnant with the couple's second child. A healthy baby girl arrived in February, enabling Suter to breathe a sigh of relief.
The look on Suter's face when asked about his family situation said far more than his words.
"You think about every little thing that could happen," he said. "We're human and that is something. I don't want to look back and make excuses for why I struggled. ... (But there was) just a lot of stuff going on. Trying to find a hospital up here and getting the baby room set up. It was just a lot of stuff. It weighs on you."
The only thing weighing on Suter these days is how to help keep the Wild on a roll.