The Professional Hockey Writers Association has struck out again, with information having been released by Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos that Montreal’s P.K. Subban has likely been given the nod as the NHL’s best defenseman. It was an unbelievable move when the PHWA snubbed Minnesota Wild rookie defenseman Jonas Brodin as a Calder finalist; it’s another swing and another strike for them if Subban is indeed chosen over Ryan Suter. But this isn’t baseball—this is hockey—and here’s why Suter is the best candidate for the award.
Now, I could simply begin and end my argument with the statement that no other NHL defenseman was more relied upon in all situations this year than Suter. That would be a very valid point, which brings me to another point—that’s just it—the NHL is a numbers-driven league. The fact of the matter is, just like Brodin’s stellar defensive play didn’t match up with his point totals (notice it should be the other way around for a defenseman), Suter’s point totals didn’t match up with that of Subban or Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang. Neither situation means that Brodin or Suter aren’t legitimately the best rookie or best defenseman—they just aren’t the flash the PHWA is looking for. However, they sure are the meat and potato defenders every NHL General Manager wants on their blue line.
In 42 games, Subban led all defensemen in scoring with 11 goals, seven on the power play, and 27 assists for 38 points, a plus-12 rating and an average ice time of 23:14 per game. Just behind him was Letang with five goals, one on the man advantage, and 33 assists for 38 points and a plus-16 rating in 35 games while skating an average ice time of 25:38 a game. Rounding out the finalists is Suter with four goals, three on the power play, and 28 assists for 32 points and a plus-2 rating while skating a very impressive average ice time of 27:16 in all 48 games. One of these is not alike.
Subban and Letang are clearly offensive minded defensemen and play with a number of very solid veteran defensemen in Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges and Paul Martin, Matt Nikanen, Douglas Murray and Brooks Orpik, respectively. Suter has…Tom Gilbert? There’s not much in Minnesota’s lineup in terms of veteran defensemen. There’s gritty bottom-pairing blue liners Clayton Stoner, Justin Falk and Nate Prosser, talented young second pairing defenseman Jared Spurgeon and occasional defensive partner (when called up from the minors) Marco Scandella and then, of course, Suter’s defensive partner—Swedish Sensation Jonas Brodin.
Gilbert has been nothing special since arriving in the trade that saw second-ever Wild draft pick Nick Schultz head north to Edmonton. The fact that Brodin stepped up and decisively took his place on the Wild’s top pairing as a rookie has certainly made Suter’s transition from Nashville to Minnesota much easier. However, there’s no question that no other defenseman in the league was counted upon by his team more than Suter.
That brings us back to where we started, but it’s no less valid than it was then. Hockey isn’t all about numbers, especially when it comes to defense. Typically, if a defenseman isn’t noticed, it isn’t that they weren’t great; it’s that they didn’t make any noticeable mistakes. Suter isn’t a flashy defender—he isn’t an offensive wizard from the blue line like Letang or an imposing physical force with a cannon from the point like Subban—he’s a complete defender that plays a very smart, reliable defensive game and isn’t afraid to chip in some offense.
Suter is much less of a defensive liability than either Subban or Letang but, if the flashy player is what the PHWA wants in the candidate they select as the best player at the position, so be it. One would think the PHWA would watch a single game of Western Conference hockey before they automatically crown the best defensemen on a team in one of the largest markets in the league as the Norris Trophy winner.