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Analysis: Ryan Suter could be a good fit, but it comes with some risk for the Dallas Stars

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With Ryan Suter signed for the next four years, the Dallas Stars get their veteran top four defender. He could be a good fit, but it’s easy to see the move going the other way too.

Ryan Suter defends against the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Ryan Suter defends against the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

‘Silly season’ is a lot like the draft. Nobody actually knows what the player drafted or signed will look like in their new laundry, but we have strong opinions about them anyway. So it goes with Ryan Suter. Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill brought in the ex-Minnesota Wild veteran for the next four years with an AAV of $3.65M. It’s not a bad contract in a vacuum. The term’s a little long, and we can ignore the NMC since it’s not like Nill would shop him later anyway, but the AAV is solid.

Whatever your opinions are of Suter as a player, Nill’s strategy is crystal clear. The Stars have one more year to take advantage of having Radulov and Pavelski all on the same roster to complement their burgeoning youth. After this upcoming season, Denis Gurianov and Jason Robertson will be RFA’s while John Klingberg will be an unrestricted free agent. With Seguin and Benn only getting older, it’s darn near closing time for the former core.

In Nill’s view, Suter replaces Jamie Oleksiak, and in doing so, not only upgrades Miro Heiskanen’s partner, but also adds veteran leadership. “Ryan Suter’s been one of the NHL’s top defenceman for many years. He’s a great veteran, a great presence, and a heavy minute-cruncher,” he told Dallas media on Wednesday.

Let’s set the food fights aside. I know supporters will mention Pavelski, and critics will mention Hanzal, but rather than assign flex scores to Nill’s biggest hits and misses, let’s just break it all down. Is Nill getting the player he says Suter is?

Why Suter might be a good fit

It’s easy to see why Suter was such an attractive option for Nill. Jim is old school. As a former player who could hold his own in a facepunching contest, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a boxing fan too. In boxing, there’s an old maxim and it goes ‘every great fighter still has one great fight left in him.’ I have no doubt that Nill believes he’s getting the same player Suter used to be, and if not the same player — then the same man who can sometimes be that player.

As a watcher of all things hockey, I’ve always liked Suter. He’s a top four defenceman who doesn’t fit into the obvious profile of a top four defender. He’s not a big shutdown d-man, or a fancy puck mover. He’s just smart and economic. Defensively, Suter was once a lot like Heiskanen. His blueline work was built on patience and good stick work more than raw physicality. Offensively, he’s always been a distributor rather than a shooter, which bodes well for the Stars. That part of his game hasn’t deteriorated. His vision could be quite key since a quarter of Dallas’ even-strength goals last season came from their blueline. They run their offense back-to-front, which makes Suter perfect for the offensive style Rick Bowness wants to run.

For more on Suter’s game, I reached out to Dylan Fremlin, having written some fantastic analysis at Hockey Wilderness, who had this to say about Suter:

Suter was definitely more of a passenger paired up with Jared Spurgeon this year, which is a good situation to find yourself in for anybody. He’s still pretty solid, though, and I see the fit with Heiskanen in terms of being a safety valve of sorts when Heiskanen wants to jump into the rush. Suter wasn’t required to move the puck up too often with Spurgeon carrying the load in that department and he won’t with Heiskanen, either, which quite frankly, is necessary because he’s not great at it these days. He’s a bit passive for my liking in terms of defending all over the ice, but he’s an aging defensive defenceman so it may be a bit of a forced adjustment there.

This kind’ve reminds me of young Erik Karlsson playing with Marc Methot. I think it’s fine and I’m sure Heiskanen is going to learn a lot from playing and communicating with a guy like Suter every day. Old school fans will love the element of calm Suter will bring to balance out playing with guys like Heiskanen or even Klingberg. I personally wouldn’t have given the term they gave to the 36-year-old, but I can see why the Stars like the fit.

On paper, this all sounds good. Heiskanen gets a Methot-type partner, but with a lot more offensive upside. On the human side of things, Suter might even ask Miro to carry him in a backpack, and run him around a twilight mire while imparting some Yoda-esque wisdom.

It sounds great but there are a few asterisks. As I’ve argued, one of Dallas’ biggest needs heading into the season was a defender who could not only log tough minutes on the PK, but be effective in them. How has Suter been on the PK over the last three seasons? Well, there’s good news, and then there’s bad news.

Why Suter might be a bad fit

Ryan Suter’s PK numbers. Courtesy of HockeyViz

If you’re not used to reading these, orange is bad because it represents a higher rate of shots, and the higher the rate, the darker the orange. This season, Suter was extremely effective on a Minnesota squad that ranked 12th on the PK. However, the high rate of shots coming from Suter’s side is a little concerning. Especially when paired with the previous two seasons, in which Suter struggled. Minnesota was bad on the PK in 2019, but they ranked 7th in 2018. If the system was better that year, Suter didn’t benefit.

This is not a small thing. Dallas was 19th on the PK this year, and 17th the year before. One of their biggest areas of need is someone who can be effective shorthanded. There’s a good plan here. Maybe Suter bounces back, and also eats Esa Lindell’s minutes to ease his burden. But that’s not the trend. If Suter doesn’t fix that, it’s hard to see how this helps. In addition, it’s not just his defense on the PK that has fallen.

Ignoring whether or not Dallas considers playing Suter next to Klingberg (which is worth exploring, and something Nill mentioned in his interview), it’s also worth talking about what Dallas is replacing: in this case, Oleksiak.

I think it’s fair to compare the two to find out if Dallas is getting an upgrade. Yes, Suter is a veteran whereas Oleksiak was not, but performance is not defined by assumptions and cliches. It is defined by what happens on ice.

In that context, they’re a fascinating contrast to each other. Over the last three seasons, Oleksiak offered stronger shot suppression, but less of an impact on goal-scoring while Suter offers a stronger impact on goal-scoring, but less of an impact on shot suppression.

Goals Above Replacement for Ryan Suter and Jamie Oleksiak. Courtesy of Evolving-Hockey

Will the cost of losing Oleksiak’s defensive impact outweigh the benefit of gaining Suter’s more offensive one? It’s hard to say.

I’d add some more asterisks to this. One hill I’ll happily die on is that Miro should be on his strong side given the clear connection to having a stronger impact on shot generation on his left versus his right. And for the same reason Suter himself put his team on blast for when Mike Yeo paired him with Jonas Brodin six years ago: handedness, he argued, matters. I won’t belabor this point. Ultimately I just see no reason why Dallas should accommodate less talented players at the cost of maximizing the elite one. It’s a nitpick in the grand scheme of things, I know, but if there’s a clear difference — however minor — between Miro on his strong side versus Miro on his weak side, then Dallas has just committed four years to (potentially) not exploring it.

Then there’s the issue of age. Wild fans argued that Suter hit a wall last year against the Canucks in the qualifying round following an injury to the same foot he had surgery on the year before. Yet he looked reborn this year playing with Kirill Kaprizov. Was being healthy again the difference? It’s hard to say. His PK numbers attest to that. Minnesota observers have documented a much different player following his ankle injury. What kind of player should Dallas expect? Suter will be 37 going into the second half of next season. Most fans are familiar with aging curves, and what happens to production as players get older, but some might be surprised to learn that defensively, players remain stable throughout their career. That is, until they hit thirty-seven.

For better or worse, this is the Jim Nill formula. Reputation matters a lot to Nill. Even if someone like Alex Edler offered a more forgiving term, or someone like Jake McCabe offered stronger on-ice results despite less ‘rep’ Nill was always gonna go with what he perceived as the biggest fish. In a vacuum, I think Suter’s a good player. A bounce-back year would be huge. As Matthew DeFranks pointed out, the defensive signings of Andreas Borgman and Alex Petrovic could signal the potential addition of Thomas Harley. Should Harley get a close look, having someone like Suter — the only tenured veteran in the Stars’ top four — could be its own reward.

But that’s why we call it silly season. Some teams end up looking like geniuses. Some teams don’t. For Suter to make Nill look like a genius, he has to show that he’s still got one great fight for the Stanley Cup left in him.