It could benefit the performance of Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter if his ice time is reduced this season. Suter has logged more time on ice (TOI) than any other National Hockey League player each of the last two seasons, playing an average of 27:16 per game in the 2012-13 season, and an astounding 29:24 per game last season. Suter is known for playing a cerebral game that, combined with his elusive skating, lessens the physical toll he receives from opponents. Notwithstanding, these inordinate numbers still pile up throughout the course of a season and potential playoff run. A reduction in ice time could allow Suter to focus less on conserving his energy, thus making him quicker. It could also reduce his risk of injury. Furthermore, it could help save his legs in the long term, as he is locked up in Minnesota until the conclusion of the 2024-25 season.
In order for the Wild to lean less on Suter, they will need reliability from the other defensive pairings. Regardless of how the foreseeable top four defensemen (consisting of Suter, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, and Marco Scandella) pair up, the top two pairings are formidable. The top four defensemen have all proven they can handle large workloads at the NHL level. It is largely up to the bottom pairing to turn in strong play, to reduce Suter’s workload.
It is conceivable that the Wild may make a move to acquire another defenseman. Barring any such acquisition, however, their fifth and sixth defensive spots appear to belong to any combination of Keith Ballard, Justin Falk, Stu Bickel, Christian Folin, Jonathon Blum, and Matt Dumba.
Last year, the bottom pairing was comprised primarily by various combinations of Ballard, Nate Prosser, and Clayton Stoner. Both Prosser and Stoner have since signed elsewhere (St. Louis and Anaheim, respectively). Ballard averaged a TOI per game of 13:36, while Prosser averaged 14:31, and Stoner averaged 13:19. For the reliance on Suter to be lessened, the bottom pairing should be able to log more minutes last year’s bottom pairing played.
Falk won’t be 26 until October 11, but at this point in his career he has not proven capable of eating up a lot of minutes. Two seasons ago, he averaged 13:12 TOI per game. Last year, he averaged only 11:55 TOI per game. Bickel saw no NHL action last year, but only averaged 10:26 and 5:31 for TOI per game over the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons respectively. 25 year old Blum is an interesting story, as his TOI per game was 17:45 in 2010/11, 17:56 in 2011/2012, 14:17 in 2012/2013, and 11:39 in 2013/14. Early on in his career he proved capable of logging significant minutes, when he was in the lineup, but saw his ice time decrease the last two years. He never played more than 35 games in a season (although that was the lockout-shortened 48 game season). Based on ice time statistics through the last few seasons, Blum appears to be a more likely candidate than Falk, Ballard, or certainly Bickel see a lot of minutes on the bottom pairing. Folin and Dumba are both interesting options. Each possesses a hard, right-handed shot that could be valuable to the Wild. Should either of them be able to break the roster (more likely Folin, at least immediately), they have potential to play a serious amount of time.
If one or both of them is on the team, they could also find their way onto the powerplay. Dumba would almost certainly see powerplay time, thanks to his offensive ability. The potential emergence of a young defenseman such as Spurgeon or Dumba as a legitimate powerplay threat could result in Suter seeing less powerplay time as well. He does control the play well on the powerplay, but is not necessarily an offensive dynamo. While powerplay minutes are not the most taxing, they still contribute to the total minutes played in a game. Moreover, playing a lot on the powerplay also reduces the time for resting between shifts.
Another factor that could decrease the reliance on Suter to play so many minutes would be if the Wild could improve their goal differential, thus playing in less close games. The likely maturation of young players such as Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Nino Niederreiter into better offensive performers, along with the acquisition of Thomas Vanek, has potential to improve the club’s offense.