The Wild had to have known changes were coming. Minnesota has dropped six of their past seven games, has only allowed fewer than three goals against once since Nov. 12 and, as witnessed by their on-ice play and their underlying numbers, is heading in the wrong direction.
As the Wild prepare to take on the Chicago Blackhawks Tuesday evening, one of the big changes at Monday’s practice was alterations to the defensive pairings. One such change saw Jonas Brodin slide up the lineup and skate alongside Ryan Suter, breaking up his pairing with Jared Spurgeon. Suter and Spurgeon had been performing well together, and when asked about coach Mike Yeo’s decision to break up the duo, Suter didn’t shy away from the question.
“They decided to change things up,” Suter told Wild.com following Monday’s practice. “I don’t know what they’re thinking. It’s different. I need to play with a right-handed defenseman to give me more options — neutral zone, offensively and even coming out of the D-zone. It’s not fair to put [Brodin] on his off-side.”
When asked more bluntly whether he was happy with the decision, Suter said he wasn’t, but that he could make sense of his pairing with Brodin in certain situations.
But following Tuesday’s pre-game skate, Suter clarified his comments and said he’s on the same page as Yeo. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Michael Russo, Suter added that he’ll do whatever the coaches think needs to be done in order to win.
"I mean, it’s easier to play with a righty,” Suter told Russo. “That’s all I was saying yesterday basically. It has nothing to do with who it is or what it is. Lefty, righty, it’s easier to come out of your end, it’s easier to make more plays. If this works, and we get winning again, might as well keep it. Hopefully it works and this is all behind us."
And while Suter may have a good feeling for what has helped the Wild produce on offense, the move to pair Suter with Brodin is likely one made to stop the bleeding and buck Minnesota’s three-goals-against trend.
Brodin and Suter have been paired together more often than not during his tenure in Minnesota. Since Suter signed with the Wild prior to the 2012-13 season, he and Brodin have skated 2,630 minutes as a pair at even strength. Spurgeon, a right-handed shot, has been Suter’s second-most frequent partner, playing 1,460 even strength minutes alongside Suter since 2012-13.
With Brodin, Suter has managed a shot attempts for percentage of 49 percent at even strength. As for production, for every 60 minutes Brodin and Suter have been paired and on ice at even strength, the Wild have scored 1.89 goals for and allowed 1.67 against. And while together, the pair have had a roughly 50-50 split of offensive zone and defensive zone starts over the past four years.
When Suter is with Spurgeon, the slant is more to the offensive side of the puck and that’s shown in the underlying numbers. The duo has an even strength shot attempts for percentage of 53.3 percent and are on ice for 2.53 goals for per 60 minutes. That said, they also start nearly 60 percent of their shifts together in the offensive zone. It’s worth noting, however, that the offensive-mindedness of the pairing has contributed to allowing 2.09 goals against per 60 minutes.
Suter's production will almost surely drop without Spurgeon, however. Suter is on pace for a career-best year with three goals and 20 points through 22 outings, but it's the impact of moving Spurgeon down the lineup that Yeo is likely looking for. When it comes to production, he won’t get more offensive punch out of Suter by pairing him with anyone but Spurgeon, but Yeo can help give Minnesota two strong pairings instead of one clear-cut top unitby shifting Spurgeon down.
Over the past three seasons, Spurgeon has spent close to 1,000 minutes skating alongside Marco Scandella, who is set to return Tuesday night after missing five games with injury. Scandella and Spurgeon have formed a formidable pairing over the past three years, and one which almost certainly challenges the Suter-Brodin pairing for top billing in Minnesota. While neither Scandella nor Spurgeon will play as many minutes as Suter, they have produced 2.57 goals for per 60 minutes as a pairing while allowing just 1.47 against while on the ice at even strength. Pair that with nearly 35 percent of their starts coming in the defensive zone and it’s not hard to see what Yeo is trying to build: a defense that's strong from top to bottom.
Matt Dumba, Christian Folin and Nate Prosser are good complimentary pieces, and all are suitable for fifth- and sixth-defenseman roles. With the bulk of the minutes going to the top four bluelines -- and with the talent being spread among the top two pairings -- it adds a depth that has been missing over the past several outings, five of which Scandella has been absent for.
While the Wild offense has struggled at times, they still sit tied for 10th in the league with 42 goals for at even strength. Their 37 goals against at even strength, though, aren’t helping. And with the current string of losses and seemingly endless run of games in which they’ve had three goals or more hung on them, it was time to shake up the back end, whether Suter appreciated it initially or not.
The Wild were a sneaky post-season team in 2014-15 but have taken a step backwards this season. Splitting up Suter and Spurgeon builds a better, more balanced blueline and one that might help the Wild stay in the Central Division playoff race.
(All advanced statistics via Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com)