The Minnesota Wild snapped their three game losing streak with a 2-1 overtime win against the always difficult Nashville Predators. Top defenseman Ryan Suter looked great in his second game playing against his former team, notching two assists and logging a team-high 30:02 in ice time. His former defensive partner, Nashville captain Shea Weber, had three shots, two hits, two blocked shots and logged exactly 30:00 in ice time…but no points. In fact, Weber has notched exactly one point—an assist—in 11 games played this season. Compare that to Suter’s six assists in 11 games. So, while it is still early in the season, it makes hockey fans wonder, was Shea Weber really worth all the hype? Could Suter actually be the better defenseman? Let’s take a look.
The Nashville Years
Ryan Suter and Shea Weber were both drafted by the Predators in the fabled draft of 2003, Suter 7th overall and Weber 49th overall. Both defensemen had distinct paths to the NHL; Suter through the North American Hockey League’s U.S. National Development Program and NCAA’s Wisconsin Badgers, Weber through the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League. Suter played only one year of college puck before turning pro, playing the entire 2004-2005 lockout with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals where he would score seven goals and 16 assists for 23 points in 63 games. Weber played the same season with the Rockets in what would be his fourth and final season in Kelowna, scoring 12 goals and 29 assists for 41 points in 55 games.
Both young blue-liners would make their NHL debuts in the 2005-2006 season. While Suter would play the entire season with the Preds, scoring a goal and 15 assists for 16 points in 71 games, Weber bounced back and forth between the Admirals and Nashville. However, the 2003 2nd round pick was impressive in his limited showing, scoring two goals and 10 assists for 12 points in just 28 games. He was certainly proving to be an intriguing young player, it especially didn’t hurt that he was big at 6’4” and over 200-pounds compared to 6’1” Ryan Suter.
Since their rookie seasons, both Suter and Weber were relied upon by Nashville to be their number one defensive pairing, and they were—while also being one of the most effective pairings in the entire NHL. In seven NHL seasons together, the two put up a combined regular season effort of 137 goals and 364 assists for 501 points and a plus-87 rating. Although there was only a 25 point difference in their career totals, Weber’s goal totals nearly tripled that of Suter. It wasn’t Suter’s slap shot other teams were looking out for—it was the 106 MPH howitzer that Weber could unleash at a moment’s notice. As far as many fans were concerned, Suter wasn’t “the guy”: he was the player passing the puck to “the guy”.
Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow
That all changed on July, 4th 2012, when Suter, and top free agent forward Zach Parise, signed identical 13-year $98 million contracts with the Minnesota Wild. The Philadelphia Flyers then tried to entice Weber, then a restricted free agent, with an even more impressive front-loaded 14-year $110 million contract. Unwilling to lose both of their top defensemen, the Predators would match the Flyers’ offer sheet, meaning that Shea Weber was in Nashville to stay.
Hockey fans then spent the remainder of the offseason—and the entire half-season lockout—debating back and forth over whether people would realize how bad Suter would be without Weber. It’s now 11 games into the lockout-shortened season and it would seem the opposite has been true. While Weber has posted a better plus-1 rating over Suter’s negative-7 rating, he has failed to put the biscuit in the basket and has but one point to Suter’s six. Obviously, it’s going to take a lot of time for both players to adjust to playing with their new defensive partners. However, both players have promising young blue-liners playing alongside them that should make the adjustment a lot easier to handle.
Weber may already be playing with Nashville’s next Suter in 2008 38th overall pick Roman Josi. The Bern, Switzerland native is in his second season in the NHL and scored five goals and 11 assists for 16 points in 52 games last season. While there are arguably better young defensemen in the system like Jonathan Blum and Ryan Ellis, Josi looks like he could be a very good defenseman in the NHL for a long time.
Suter started out the season skating alongside Jared Spurgeon, who led Minnesota’s defensive corps in scoring last season. However, after taking a shot off the inside of the leg during the Wild’s first game against Nashville this season, Spurgeon has yet to play a game since. As a result, Minnesota called up 2011 10th overall pick Jonas Brodin from Houston and hasn’t looked back. Brodin, a native of Karlstad, Sweden, is an elite level talent that has handled his promotion to the Wild—and the top pairing—with confidence and poise. His skating is among the best in the NHL, he’s a very mobile defender and isn’t a liability in his own end. The young blue-liner also makes a great first pass up the ice, uses his stick well to break up plays and, although it needs to be dialed in, wields an impressive slap shot for a defenseman once labeled as “not a physical or offensive player whatsoever”. In eight career NHL games—the majority while skating alongside Suter—Brodin has notched three assists, is a negative-3 rating and has fired 10 shots on net. The elite play of the kid is sure to have boosted Suter’s confidence level and has most likely made the transition that much easier.
So, can we honestly say whether or not Shea Weber or Ryan Suter is the better defenseman? It’s easy to formulate opinions on the matter, but—no—it’s likely too early to make any solid statement saying one is better than the other. However, the success each has with their new defensive partner may be a determining factor in the long run.