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The Defense of Ryan Suter

There is a lot of noise on the internet regarding the play of Ryan Suter. This makes absolutely no sense.

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For some reason there are certain Stars Defensemen that seem to gather a ridiculous amount of chatter. Whether it be on the internet or people calling into the radio show, these names keep surfacing almost as much as “Spam Risk” on my iPhone. 

First, there was the portion of the Stars fan population that disliked Alex Gologoski (or as some called him, Alex Goal-against-me). 

Despite the fact that three different Stars Head Coaches; Marc Crawford, Glen Gulutzan and Lindy Ruff all thought the Minnesota native was a top pairing blue-liner, some people never stopped complaining. Since 2010, amongst Stars defensemen only Miro Heiskanen (24:06) averaged more Time-On-Ice than Goligoski (23:41). Only Esa Lindell (+58) had a better +/- ratio than Goligoski (+34). Only John Klingberg has more points than the man called Goose. Yet, some Stars fans were ecstatic when Goligoski left via Free Agency after the 2016 playoffs. Go figure.

Then there was the Julius Honka saga. Blessed with skating speed and offensive skill, a segment of the Stars fandom couldn’t wait for the 2014 first round pick to permanently insert himself into the lineup. Thoughts of Honka and Klingberg driving play from the blueline for years to come danced in their heads. But just when it seemed ready to happen, Honka’s career trajectory dropped faster than Wile E. Coyote realizing the edge of the cliff was 50 yards behind him. 

Despite what was happening on the ice, bad decisions, defensive zone breakdowns and the occasional pizza served up the middle, these fans could not accept that Honka was in regression. It had to be the Coach’s fault. It was the scheme. The front office didn’t like him. Eventually, the hashtag #FreeHonka became a thing. The people in the Stars front office making decisions were wrong. Why didn’t they look at analytics like “Offensive Zone Entries?” Instead, coaches insisted on pesky things like taking the correct man in the defensive zone. Players like Andrej Sekera and Roman Polak became more valuable to the team than the swift-skating Finn. The #FreeHonka crowd wanted nothing to do with that logic. 

Once upon a time, the Stars thought so highly of Honka that any team requesting the Finn via trade was immediately shut down. Today, Honka is playing in the Swedish Hockey League and is available, at a discount rate, to any NHL team that wants him. So far there have been no takers.

Which brings us to the current focal point/whipping boy, Ryan Suter.

For some reason, there is an inordinate amount of negative chatter about a 37-year-old defenseman who plays a solid but not flashy game. Maybe some fans are expecting the 2013-14 version of Ryan Suter who averaged 29:15 Time-On-Ice per game. Maybe some fans are expecting the Suter who would have scored a career-high in points just three seasons ago if not for the COVID shutdown. Maybe some fans just don’t like defensemen from Wisconsin. Whatever the reason for the negativity, if I may quote from Mr. Spock, “None of this appears to be logical.”

 The reality is Suter will be 38 years old when this current season comes to an end, but he is also not being paid to play nearly half a game, as he did early in his career. Suter is in the second season of a four-year deal with an AAV of $3.65 million. That is mid-range on the Stars, ninth to be precise. For that investment, Dallas is getting an experienced defenseman who plays more than 20 minutes a night, even strength, power play and penalty kill. 

Rick Bowness and Pete DeBoer are two very different coaches with two very different styles, yet one thing they have in common is the desire to have Suter on the ice. Last year Miro Heiskanen led the Stars in Time-On-Ice. Ryan Suter was second, averaging 23:39 per game. In a small sample size under Pete DeBoer, Heiskanen leads the team again, and in second place is…you guessed it, Ryan Suter. 

In fact, they are the only two Dallas players currently averaging more than 20 minutes per game. Durability matters as well; Suter is the only defenseman to play in every game since the start of last season. 

In talking with analytics people around the NHL, those numbers come up pretty solid as well. The one area slightly below average for Suter was defensive zone puck retrievals. That will need to improve a bit playing with Jani Hakanpaa compared to Heiskanen. All other metrics show a solid performer who is an above average defender. 

Factors that don’t show up on game sheets such as knowing where to position himself in the defensive zone, how to use his stick effectively to clog passing lanes and when to step up in the neutral zone to stop rushes from becoming quality chances, are big in Suter’s favor. As for the other end of the ice, Suter was called “surprisingly effective in the offensive zone” by one NHL analytics expert.

I’m sure someone can devise a heat chart or a stylized pseudo-graph to show Suter is a liability and should be benched before calamity strikes. Consider this, with all the defensemen in the Stars system, why hasn’t anyone beaten him out of a job or at the very least, made a huge dent in his playing time? The answer is simple, Suter is still effective and fills a need on a nightly basis. 

At age 37, he is no longer an all-star and will not be a driving offensive force 5v5 like Nils Lundkvist or Heiskanen. But the pros of having Suter on the team far outweigh the cons. He’s moderately paid and the Stars' defensive version of a Swiss Army knife. 

Until someone can knock him out of the lineup, the former Badger will be there for at least 20 minutes a night, like he’s done for nearly 1300 NHL games. Instead of trashing Suter, maybe look at the bigger picture—the detractors might find a player who makes more of a positive impact than the squawking on social media would have you believe. 

      

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