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Top 25 Defensemen: Suter seeking to rise again after injury recovery

As Ryan Suter returns from a season-ending injury, he aims to return to the blueline's upper echelon. Where does he rank among the 25 best rearguards in the NHL today?

By Ken Campbell

After an extended summer dominated by rehab, Ryan Suter was eager to suit up and play in the Stars And Stripes Showcase to benefit the Jim Johannson Legacy fund for USA Hockey in August. Suter felt healthy enough and confident enough to get back in a competitive environment for the first time since he broke his ankle with four games left in the 2017-18 season. But then he talked to new Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton, who asked Suter to make himself a healthy scratch. “You’ve got to respect the boss,” Suter said.

An exhibition game in August is about the only time you’ll see the 33-year-old defenseman play nice and sit. Since 2006-07, Suter has led the NHL in minutes played with 23,670:07. He no longer logs 29 minutes a game and is usually second in minutes played to L.A.’s Drew Doughty, but the Wild will get serious pushback if they expect Suter to cut his ice time in light of him being on the back nine of his career and recovering from his first major injury since becoming an NHLer. “I have zero interest in that,” Suter said. “Last year was my best year as a pro. I want to continue where I left off and have a better year than I had last year, and I honestly think I can. I know I can. As soon as I get out there in the games, I feel like I’ll be just fine.”

Those are bold words considering Suter’s career was hanging in the balance at the end of last season. In the Wild’s fifth-last game of the campaign, he got tied up along the boards with Remi Elie of the Dallas Stars on an innocuous play that ended up shattering Suter’s fibula. But the real trouble spot was Suter’s talus, a small bone that sits between the heel bone and the tibia and fibula. If you bend your foot, the talus is located where the end of the leg begins to meet the foot. The problem with that area is the blood flow isn’t as strong as it is to other bones, so sometimes when the talus is injured, it doesn’t get the proper blood flow and the bone dies.

Suter said a couple doctors refused to do the surgery and hinted his playing days might be over. He found an orthopedic surgeon in Green Bay, Wis., Dr. Robert Anderson, who has operated on the likes of the NBA’s Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant and NFL’s Cam Newton and is on the medical staff of the Green Bay Packers. Had Suter not been an athlete, doctors would have gone in and screwed every single piece of bone back in place, which would’ve had him walking but would’ve made playing hockey in the world’s best league next to impossible. Instead, the surgeon put two screws in the fibula and another through the talus, then allowed the rest of the pieces of bone that were broken off to heal themselves. “All the time (Dr. Anderson) was calm and cool and laid-back,” Suter said. “And then I saw him two months later when I went for a checkup, and he basically said, ‘Wow, this is a miracle.’ That’s when it hit me, ‘Whoa, maybe it was more serious than I thought.’ ”

So much of what separates elite athletes from the rest of the world is their sense of confidence and swagger. Where the layperson sees a career-ending injury, athletes such as Suter see nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome. It’s that kind of attitude and perspective that got him to the NHL in the first place, and it makes him truly believe he can continue to play big minutes at a high level in Year 7 of the 13-year deal he signed with the Wild in 2012. “The minute I start thinking I’ll never be able to play again or I won’t be as good, then I’m already defeated, I think,” Suter said. “For me personally, you have to say everything’s fine, no different. Just go out and play, basically. You have to have confidence in yourself and the determination to be the best. If I’m sitting here doubting myself, how am I supposed to go out there and perform?”

So when the Wild open their season in early October, Suter will be there with partner Mathew Dumba, prepared to be leaned on heavily by the team. Now the challenge is to play longer into the calendar. In 13 NHL seasons, Suter has made it out of the first round only four times and has never played in a conference final. The Wild have been first-round fodder each of the past three springs. “We have to get over that hump in the playoffs,” Suter said. “Don’t talk about it, don’t think about it. Just go out and play and win.”

TOP 25 DEFENSEMEN

1. Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
Even when missing part of ankle, his ability to command the game is peerless. Numbers will rebound once he finds new team.

2. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
Earned first Norris thanks to his tremendous all-around game. Amazing skills for a guy who is also one of the league’s biggest.

3. Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
Basically a Norris winner in waiting at this point. Jones has size, skill and skating ability while excelling at all aspects of the game.

4. P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators
Everything is big with P.K., from his personality to his shot to his punishing defensive style. Tops on the power play, too.

5. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets
‘Big Buff’ was huge factor in the playoffs as a driver at both ends and an emotional leader. Deadly point shot, physical wall.

6. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
Led NHL with nearly 27 minutes of service per night. After a decade in Los Angeles, he just put up his best numbers yet.

7. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
Some defensive struggles last year, but the offense was still a potent weapon for the Sharks. And yeah, everyone loves the beard.

8. John Carlson, Washington Capitals
Underrated until he led Capitals to a Cup, Carlson is a two-way force who got himself and Michal Kempny new long-term deals.

9. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
Quiet in profile but so useful on the ice, he paces stacked D-corps in ice time, faces top competition and is key to the power play.

10. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
Sprinted out of the blocks as an early Norris favorite. Tailed off a bit but was still stellar for the Blues with a career-high 54 points.

11. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild
How is he still playing so many minutes? His skating is one answer. Rehabbing ankle injury, but Wild will still count on him.

12. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
Offense has dipped in past two years but, with new coach and new look on ‘D,’ don’t rule out the smooth skater for a return.

13. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes
Incredible puck-mover hitched wagon to Coyotes long-term. Great news for them and not so good for Pacific opponents.

14. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars
Always had great rushing ability, but fleshing out his game was a priority. Studied Pietrangelo last year. Let’s see if it worked.

15. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose Sharks
The king of taking away time and space. Vlasic can shut down anyone using his stick, skating, smarts or all three at the same time.

16. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets
Athletic and talented, Werenski returns from shoulder surgery, so the start may be slow. But once he gets going, watch out.

17. Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers
Smarts, two-way talents make him No. 1 blueliner in the making. As his influence increases, the Flyers’ defense will get better.

18. Dougie Hamilton, Calgary Flames
Not your average hockey player off the ice, but he’s way above average on the ice, too. Size, skill and skating make him a threat.

19. Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators
Patron saint of new-school D-men uses elite skating and instincts to keep puck going in right direction. A top possession guy.

20. Shayne Gostisbehere, Philadelphia Flyers
After sophomore slump, ‘Ghost Bear’ hit his third year with a vengeance. Tremendously skilled offensive D-man had 65 points.

21. Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers
When healthy, has the size, skating and skills to make impact in all three zones. Since injury bug seems to have left, look out.

22. Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs
His offense is nice, but Rielly’s ability to take on top competition is underrated. His 52 points were by far a career high.

23. Mattias Ekholm, Nashville Predators
Another possession beast from Nashville, he brings the size but can still really move. That’s a lot to get around if you’re a forward.

24. Mathew Dumba, Minnesota Wild
Breakout season saw him rack up 50 points while playing big minutes. His mix of skating, snarl and two-way play are impressive.

25. Cam Fowler, Anaheim Ducks
Slick skater led Ducks with nearly 25 minutes per night. Works the power play but also a threat to produce shorthanded.

This story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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