ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter could be considered a bit of a throwback.
Although coaches throughout the NHL are trying to reduce the workloads of their top defensemen, Suter's minutes continue to increase.
Science and technology have made sport-specific training a year-round exercise, but Suter enjoys good, old-fashioned manual labor.
With the days of the 30-minute defenseman seemingly a thing of the past, Suter appears poised to at least threaten the mark this season. Averaging 29:36 per game, Suter leads the NHL in time on ice by more than two minutes.
Ten times this season, Suter has accumulated more than 30 minutes of ice time. Three times, in three consecutive games from Nov. 7-13, Suter played more than 35 minutes (two of those three were 36 minutes). Over that stretch, Suter played 108:19, the most ever in a three-game stretch since the Elias Sports Bureau began tracking the stat in 2000.
If Suter were to get to the 30-minute mark, he would be the first player to officially accomplish the feat. Chris Pronger averaged 30:14 while playing for the St. Louis Blues in 1999-2000 before time on ice was an official stat.
"I feel the more I play, the better I am," Suter said. "You don't get tired out there. In the heat of the moment, you're just trying to win that next shift. You're not thinking about being tired."
But that's exactly how defensemen from the NHL feel when asked about Suter's ice time.
"I'm glad I'm not doing it," said Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell, who led the NHL in time on ice in 2011-12 and is seventh this season. "That's a lot of minutes. I've done it for a while, and sometimes it affects you and you hit a wall and you kind of shut down. Mentally, you have to really be in the game."
"I'm actually tired just thinking about it," added Panthers defenseman Tom Gilbert, a close friend of Suter's and former teammate with the Wild and the University of Wisconsin.
Now in his ninth NHL season, Suter has seen an incremental increase in his workload almost every season.
In 2008-09, Suter played with 24:15, 27th best in the League. By 2010-11, Suter was in the top 10. In 2011-12, his final season with the Nashville Predators, he was third with 26:30.
Last season, his first with the Wild, Suter led the League with 27:16. Over two minutes ahead of that pace through 21 games this season, Suter would be the first player since Nicklas Lidstrom and Adrian Aucoin in 2002-03 to average at least 29 minutes of ice time per game over an entire season.
It's not just the sheer quantity of minutes Suter is playing either. A first-pairing defender with Jonas Brodin (also among the League leaders in minutes played), Suter is also a critical cog on the Wild's penalty kill and power-play units.
During his three-game stretch of 35-plus minute games, all three games were decided in a shootout. It wasn't uncommon for Suter to play three or even four minutes of the overtime period.
"In Washington [Nov. 7], we were on a power play and I changed and he was still on the ice," Wild forward Jason Pominville said. "For a little while, I was on the bench and turned and saw him skating the puck up the ice and I was like, 'Oh my God, Sutes is still out there?' It's unreal.'"
Wild coach Mike Yeo said he's had the same realization a few times.
"You look at the box score through two [periods], he's already at 20 minutes, which is a lot. Then he plays another 15 or 16 minutes in the third period and in overtime. It's mind-boggling," Yeo said. "When you look at it after the game, and you see how well he was still playing at the end, that's what's most amazing."
How does a player function after playing so many minutes? And how does a player continually do it night after night? It takes a special player with a special skill set to pull it off.
"He's the type of player, just the way he plays, he uses the perfect amount of energy when he's on the ice," Gilbert said. "It takes a special player to know how to do that."
Being tired isn't an option for Suter, who says he tries to play smarter in a game where he gets a lot of ice time.
"Maybe instead of jumping up and making plays, you just sit back a bit and rest up," Suter said. "Then that following shift, you can get back out there and create again."
Over the course of the offseason, recharging the batteries is essential, especially for a minutes-eater like Suter. Apparently, rest and relaxation means something different to him than it would to most, however.
Following a truncated 48-game season and five Stanley Cup Playoff games in 2012-13, Suter returned to his farm outside his hometown of Madison, Wis., and got to work on several chores that needed to be done around the property.
He started by ripping up his driveway and porch outside his front door so new concrete could be poured. After that, there were woods to tend to on his tractor and a 500-foot long fence that needed to be re-painted … by hand.
"I was the demolition man," Suter said. "Just trying to save a little money."
Playing in the second year of a 13-year contract that will pay him $98 million, Suter could easily find someone else to do the work for him. But that's just not his style.
"You get away from the everyday grind of going out, skating, doing that, your mind gets away from it," Suter said. "Some guys go golfing, some guys go to the beach, I go out and get in my skid steer and drive my tractor and just get away from everything.
"I enjoy doing that stuff. It's relaxing to me."
It's the same down-home attitude on the ice that has turned Suter into one of the NHL's premier defensemen. Unflappable on the ice and quiet (almost shy) off it, Suter does everything he can to avoid the spotlight, a task that until this point of his career, has been pretty easy to do.
The son of Bob Suter, who played for Herb Brooks and the United States on the "Miracle On Ice" team that captured the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics and the nephew of Gary Suter, a four-time NHL All-Star and Stanley Cup Champion with the Calgary Flames, Ryan spent his first seven seasons in the NHL often overshadowed by Shea Weber on the Nashville Predators' blue line. Weber was, and still is, an annual contender for the Norris Trophy, awarded the League's top defenseman.
"It's perfect," Suter said. "They got all the attention, all the accolades. It's perfect with me. It's obviously exciting to be up for the Norris Trophy (Suter finished second in the voting to P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens last season), but it's not something at the start of the year I say I'm going to try and do. You just want to go play hard and win."
Unfortunately for Suter, his days of playing in the shadows are likely over. Universally respected as one of the top blueliners in the world, Suter will play in his second Olympic Games this February in Sochi, Russia.
In addition to his time on ice numbers, Suter's 13 assists rank him amongst the leaders of his position group. Another run at the Norris is not only possible, but likely.
In the short-term, Yeo said it's not possible to keep playing Suter as much as the Wild did during their most recent stretch. But he did concede it's hard to manage his minutes in tight games. The Wild, who enters their game at Montreal on Tuesday riding a four-game winning streak, have played five straight one-goal games.
"If you can find yourself up in a game by more than a couple of goals, you can back him off a little bit," Yeo said.
Added Campbell: "I think the thing you worry about with him is stretches where they play a lot of games in a row or get in those eight games in 12 nights. I know I've played some years where too many minutes, you get fatigued and you're out on the ice and you have to conserve energy. So you can't play your highest end-to-end game you'd like to."
Campbell said watching him play 30 minutes and watching Suter do it is completely different. Because of his style of play, Campbell said he has to work harder and expend more energy than Suter to put himself in good position in his own end. That's because Campbell tends to get deeper into the offensive zone and take more chances in that end of the rink.
"He knows how to manage it well, he knows when to be more assertive and when to just buy some time and rest on the ice," said Wild assistant coach Darryl Sydor, a veteran of 17 seasons and 1,291 NHL games. "Quality D-men, they're all different. But Ryan knows how to use his partner well and his teammates well. You're not always looking for him to lug the puck."
Suter says what he does is all mental toughness.
"Anybody can go out there and play [30 or 35 minutes]," Suter said. "I try not to think about it."
Hard work is a trademark during Suter's summers on the farm, but the wannabe farmer is at his best when he's making work on the ice look easy. Ultimately, it's Suter's secret to playing big minutes.
"I try to sit back and let the play develop," Suter said. "I try to be at the next spot before the play gets there so you don't have to work hard."
Author: Dan Myers | NHL.com Correspondent
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