The future of the Minnesota Wild grew considerably brighter with the signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter this past offseason. Both players immediately stepped in as assistant captains, and have certainly played starring roles in their respective positions. While Parise leads the team with eight goals and five assists for 13 points, Suter has been the undisputed leader on the Wild blue line with 11 assists—good for third in team scoring and three points ahead of former University of Wisconsin teammate Tom Gilbert in scoring from the blue line. While Suter is a negative-5 rating, it comes with the territory of playing nearly half a game, every game, as Minnesota’s top defenseman. In fact, his average ice time of 27:39 is first in the entire NHL.
There is (arguably) no other defenseman in the NHL as important to his team’s success as Ryan Suter. So, with that in mind, it brings in to question, is he worthy of Norris Trophy consideration as the NHL’s best defenseman? Before we can answer that, let’s take a look at the other defensemen that have thrown their hat into the ring in this lockout shortened season.
Niklas Kronwall—Detroit’s new No. 1 defenseman. The departure of Nicklas Lidstrom left many questions on the Red Wings’ blue line. Fellow Swede, Kronwall, has stepped in beautifully, and, while he’s certainly no Lidstrom, he currently leads all NHL defensemen in scoring with two goals and 14 assists for 16 points and a negative-4 rating in 19 games. However, he isn’t much of a minute muncher with an average ice time per game of 23:49.
Pittsburgh has a pair of defensemen that have stood out so far this season—Kris Letang (no surprise there) and Paul Martin. Both defensemen are tied for 15 points, and are a plus-6 and plus-1, respectively. Both defensemen also log nearly two minutes of ice time per game more than Kronwall, on an average of 3-4 less shifts.
St. Louis also has a pair of defensemen in the running for the NHL’s best at the position—Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. The defensemen have notched 15 and 12 points, and 22:12 and 25:47 of ice time per game, respectively. Hockey fans need to keep an eye on both of these young men, because they could be the franchise top pair for the Blues for a long, long time. Either one could be perennial Norris contenders in the not too far off future.
Another young man hockey fans should keep their eyes on is Phoenix’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The 6th overall selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft is a stud, plain and simple. The 6’2” 190-pound left-shot blue liner is a workhorse and will without a doubt be the No. 1 franchise defenseman for the Coyotes. So far this season, he has potted three goals and chipped in nine assists for 12 points, just 14 penalty minutes and is an impressive plus-9 in 19 games played. I’m not saying this kid is the next Erik Karlsson, but he’s nearly a lock to be an eventual perennial Norris contender and is worth snatching up in any keeper fantasy hockey league. So far this season, he’s averaged 25:23 of ice time per game.
Then, of course, there are the usual suspects, minus the injured Karlsson—Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber and even Brian Campbell.
What’s been encouraging to watch in Suter’s game is his composure with and without the puck. He plays a deceptively simple game, while making great outlet passes and elite plays at both ends of the ice. The guy is Minnesota’s defensive leader, and has no doubt improved the game of his defensive partner Jonas Brodin as much—or more—as Brodin has improved his. What has also been encouraging is seeing the way Suter is beginning to shoot the puck more. The guy has broken more than one stick in the past few games while unloading a stunning and unexpected slap shot from the point. If Minnesota’s top pairing can dial in their slappers, they could be just as deadly offensively as they are defensively.
So, in answer to the question in the title, yes, Ryan Suter deserves Norris Trophy consideration. Will this be the year he finally comes home from Las Vegas with the title of “Best Defenseman in the NHL”? Probably not, but that shouldn’t take away from what he’s doing in Minnesota. There’s a reason he was signed to a 13-year $98 million contract—he’s good—and he’s proving it every time he takes to the ice.