The Curious Case of Ryan Suter

Ryan Suter is a bit of an enigma and there are two camps amongst Stars fans with rather different opinions about him. So which one is correct? Or are both sides right?

Probably no other name has been more divisive on the Dallas Stars Twitterverse during the last summer than the 37-year old native of Madison, Wisconsin: Ryan Suter.

A player who was one of the most dominant defensemen of his generation. Also a player who has been labeled by his former teammate and a former Dallas Star, Jason Arnott, as one of the biggest locker room distractions who was always complaining about almost everything. It’s fair to question if public perception among Stars fans of Suter has been skewed since that interview was released.

This won’t serve as a continuation of whatever Jason Arnott’s personal experience is. I want to look at Ryan Suter beyond the surface and also through the numbers – and determine how the Stars could potentially utilize his talents (or his contract) the best way.

Analytically speaking, Ryan Suter was the Stars’ third-best defenseman during his first year in Victory Green. (You may not be surprised that the best one was obviously Miro Heiskanen.) Our good friends at rated Heiskanen’s season through their ARiNDEX and he was 96% in percentile, which basically means only 4% of players in the league are better than him.

So far, the stat checks out.

What may (or may not) come as a surprise is the second best-defenseman by this stat being Thomas Harley last season. Analytically speaking, the three best Stars defensemen in the 2021-22 season were Heiskanen, Harley and Suter, in that order. Even John Klingberg had a statistically worse season. So why would Stars fans so frequently malign Suter, when his cap hit is … checks notes … just a smidge over $3.5 million?

Well, that is the 3.65-million-dollar question, to be precise.

Suter’s numbers show that he can still provide some offense. Heck, he scored seven goals and added 25 assists on the offense-strapped Stars team. That alone is worth some congratulatory messages. Sometimes, there is a discrepancy between analytics and pure eye test. In many instances, players perform seemingly well on the outside, only for analytics to show us there is a regression coming.

In Suter’s case, it’s the other way around. Fans are visibly unhappy with his engagement (or lack thereof) during games. Yes, he’s 37 years old but he’s also a professional athlete, a hockey player, no less. Add the relatively recent comments by Jason Arnott or some members of the media that cover the Minnesota Wild and you have a recipe for a scapegoat for fans.

And there is also this goal.

It’s funny how the fans always need to find the one player who takes more blame than anybody else on the team. There’s one every season.

Remember Cody Eakin? It was probably not his fault that he was played as a 1C and had to have two of the best players in the ENTIRE NHL during that period of time on his wings. Heck, he made it count, that’s for sure.

Or Jamie Oleksiak? It’s natural for humans to keep more positive memories in their brain cells than negative ones. Yes, he was a defensive stalwart during that Stanley Cup Final Bubble Run. But before that he was also a total outcast during Ken Hitchcock’s tenure and his trade to Pittsburgh for a 4th round pick was seen as salvation for both the player and the franchise. He was so valuable to the team after he was re-acquired, they refused to trade him at the trade deadline of the 2020-2021 season to Winnipeg just to keep him around Miro Heiskanen in a seemingly lost year.

Oleksiak’s presence in the top four was so crucial, the Stars felt the immediate need to replace his loss with Ryan Suter on the first day of free agency in 2021.

I’ve often pondered this offseason what would’ve happened if they felt the same urgency replacing John Klingberg in their top four as well. To their credit, according to Elliotte Friedman the Stars have actually been working on the recent trade for Nils Lundkvist for months, so I stand corrected a bit.

Back to Ryan Suter, though.

He has a contract with a no-movement clause for another three years, including this season. What that means for Stars fans is, unless he gets bought out, he is here to stay. I have much trouble believing that Jim Nill really expected Suter to play through the duration of his contract when he decided to sign the sturdy defenseman to a four-year deal. Maybe that was the reason he structured the contract the way he did. So while it is indeed a 35+ year contract which is usually hard to buyout, it is exempt from regular 35+ buyout rules as the contract is not front-loaded and does not have any signing bonuses after the first year.

Fortunately for the part of Stars fans who are not that much in favor of Ryan Suter playing in Victory Green until he’s 40 years old, that contract is therefore very much buyout friendly, as opposed to the one he signed in 2012 for the Minnesota Wild.

For the 2023-24 season, the Stars could be in a tighter cap situation that they are now with Jason Robertson’s contract impasse. Roope Hintz’s next extension will kick in and it’s very likely to be a huge one. Joe Pavelski’s contract is expiring but he isn’t showing signs of stopping just yet and they may have found themselves in a situation of needing every penny.

Much of the future depends on how Ryan Suter performs this season and how much he inevitably regresses due to his age. Make no mistake, I’d be happy if he exceeds expectations because to get top four contributions for just $3.65 million against the cap is a very good value. Chances are the regression is coming sooner or later, so it would be wise to go through the options here.

His buyout can only happen after year two or year three for the Stars. In both cases, Stars would save $2,866,667 against the cap in the first year of the buyout. They’d also be charged with a dead cap hit of $1,433,333 in the 2025-26 season and also potentially in the 2026-27 season if the buyout was to occur next summer, but that’s more than manageable, considering the anticipated cap raise in 2025.

Buying him out in the 2024 offseason seems more realistic than next year, but the aforementioned incoming cap crunch will definitely make things interesting in eight or nine months.

Why? The Stars will need to allocate probably somewhere around $16 to $18 million against the cap for just Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson next summer. Add to that the already existing contracts of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell and the six most expensive players could account for $50 million against the cap. Just for reference, the current six most expensive players for the Toronto Maple Leafs make around $53.5 million against the cap – the team that is always mentioned when the phrase “top-heavy” is mentioned in a salary cap world.

And I still haven’t mentioned the upcoming new deals for RFAs like Ty Dellandrea, Riley Damiani, Jacob Peterson or, most notably, Denis Gurianov, who could very well have a career year if he sticks on the same line with Hintz for an extended period of time this season in coach Pete DeBoer’s system.

Did I also mention Joe Pavelski’s contract expires next summer? If he continues at his other-wordly pace and wants to continue contributing as a player, his next one-year deal would probably not be a league minimum contract. Yeah, a regression is anticipated sooner or later because time stops for no one, but his game and its components are less prone to aging than, say, that of a power forward.

So something’s gotta give, right?

For the time being, Ryan Suter will definitely play in the 2022-23 season. His metrics indicate that it would be prudent to pair him with a partner who can help him with the transition game while also providing a steadying presence on the backend. You can see why it was such a good fit for Suter to be paired with Miro Heiskanen, as he excels at everything but especially those two things and why things went rather south when they tried Suter next to John Klingberg early last season, whose defense at 5v5 isn’t really something to write home about.

I wonder if pairing him with Colin Miller may bring better results as it could potentially free Heiskanen to play with either Harley or Lundkvist. Miller projects to be a steady presence on the defensive side of things, while also being capable of transitioning play. I’d even say his transition numbers are slightly undervalued in Andy&Rono’s projection for this season.

I personally don’t really like the label, but Colin Miller is also somewhat injury-prone and it may very well mean the Stars would need to react and adapt to other possibilities if he misses significant time. A really out-of-the box idea could be pairing Ryan Suter with Esa Lindell. It sounds strange as this pairing was barely deployed at 5v5 last year, but Lindell projects to be rather strong in both transition and defense, a projection which may very well have its blind spots but is interesting to explore nevertheless.

A Suter–Lindell pairing could also mean having that optimal dimension of lefty-righty on the other two pairs as DeBoer is known to prefer, especially one where a certain Heiskanen appears. He could be paired with Nils Lunkdvist and Thomas Harley could play with Jani Hakanpaa or Colin Miller, depending on his health and ability to play on the penalty kill as the coaching staff certainly prefers to have other PK specialists in the line-up apart from Esa Lindell.

A top six of:

Heiskanen – Lundkvist
Harley – Hakanpaa
Suter – Lindell

while also having Will Butcher, Joel Hanley and Colin Miller available to jump in is nothing to scoff at. That’s why I feel it will be pretty fascinating to see a coaching staff with a clean slate dealing with these defensive players’ synergies.

It may be plausible they revert to what was used before, pairing Suter with Heiskanen but it would be foolish not to try other possibilities and aiming for the maximum extraction of potential that the newly designed defensive core has.