Preds, Suter enter playoffs with high expectations as well as uncertain future

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 7:27am
0409Suter.jpg
Ryan Suter (Michael W. Bunch/SouthComm)

Little things. Big bucks.

In varying proportions, they have been on Ryan Suter’s mind ever since the Nashville Predators opened training camp last September.

Given the choice, he wouldn’t be thinking about money. But in the final year of a contract that will take him to unrestricted free agency on July 1, money questions keep coming up, particularly during one headline-making interview session during the NHL’s All-Star weekend in February.

It has been impossible to ignore the issue because — one way or another — the franchise will turn on whatever he decides in regard to his professional future.

Still, he prefers to focus on the little things, the details that make the difference between winning and losing, as much as possible. They are aspects of the game that often go unnoticed by the average fan: the space a defender allows an attacking player; taking the body as opposed to a body part; anticipation; preparation; a clear sense of one’s role and the focus to execute that role every shift. Those things allow the stability and reliability necessary to succeed in hockey’s most demanding moments.

As the latest generation of a family steeped in the sport, such concerns have been ingrained into Suter’s approach from some of his earliest days on and around the rinks.

“You always hear about it,” he said. “When you’re younger you hear, ‘Oh, you have to be a consistent player. You have to be a consistent player.’ Then you grow up, and now you’re an older guy, and you’re like, ‘OK, this is what they mean by being a consistent player.’

“It’s showing up every night. And a team has to be consistent too. Now that I’m older, I know what they’re talking about.”

The good news for Suter is that the National Hockey League playoffs begin Wednesday and for the seventh time in eight seasons the Predators are in the 16-team field of Stanley Cup contenders.

The 2011-12 regular season ended with last Saturday’s game at Colorado and was one of the most noteworthy in franchise history. Nashville finished with at least 100 points for the second time in three years and the fourth time overall. A record number of sellout crowds filed into Bridgestone Arena, and a debt was settled when quixotic, talented forward Alexander Radulov returned from Russia last month.

Expectations caused by last season’s first-round victory against Anaheim, the continued development of some of the team’s core players and the addition of a significant amount of talent prior to the NHL trade deadline are larger than ever, and have been almost from the moment Vancouver eliminated Nashville from the 2011 playoffs in a game at Bridgestone Arena.

Suter figures he would do a disservice to himself, his team and the fans who cheer them if he allows himself to think about anything other than the little things from this point until the Predators play their final game.

“Now that we’re getting to the playoffs, now is the fun time of the year,” Suter said. “It’s been a little stressful with the contract situation and all of that. Now there’s nothing I can do. All I have to do is focus on playing well and helping our team win.”

 

 

While the Predators have become accustomed to being in the postseason, the argument can be made that for the first time they actually are in the mix for a championship.

Unlike many of their previous playoff appearances, which were assured only in the final days — sometimes the absolute final day — of the season, this year’s looked well in hand for months. Nashville earned at least a point in 10 of 11 games beginning in early November and then won 13 of its first 15 after Christmas and remained solidly among the top eight ever since.

The Predators not only survived in what is arguably the NHL’s most competitive division, they thrived. They were a combined 11-5-2 against Central Division rivals Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis, all of which sat atop the conference standings at some point.

No Western Conference team won more often when trailing at the start of the third period. In early December, they gave up four goals in a little more than seven minutes but outscored the Vancouver Canucks 3-0 over the second half of a game in Vancouver and won 6-5. Later that same month, they overcame an early 4-1 deficit and beat Columbus 6-5 on Martin Erat’s goal with fewer than nine seconds to play.

“I think there should be high expectations,” center David Legwand said. “You shouldn’t be happy just to make the playoffs. Only 16 teams get the chance, and you never know when you’re going to get another opportunity.”

An organization that remains devoted to the idea of building from within saw some of its longest-tenured players such as Erat and Legwand play some of their best hockey. Then the return of Radulov as well as trade acquisitions of defenseman Hal Gill and forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad provided unprecedented depth that had coach Barry Trotz searching to find the best combination to fill the 20-man lineup on a nightly basis throughout the final weeks of the regular season.

Through it all, no one appeared in more games for Nashville during the 2011-12 season than Suter. He missed three contests in mid-January due to an injury but no others. Along the way he had his best offensive season and was selected to play in the NHL All-Star Game for the first time.

If the contract issue weighed him down in any way, it was tough to detect.

“I think once you get out there and just play you forget about all those things,” center Mike Fisher said. “You just stick to your game like you always have. We’ve all been playing hockey for so long, I think that just takes over, and hopefully it doesn’t really affect him.

“He’s a great professional.”

 

 

With Suter ranked as one of the top defensemen in the NHL, no one doubts he’s in line to secure a substantial raise from the $3.5 million in salary he earned this season.

Predators owners and management have said they are prepared and willing to pay market value to retain him with a long–term deal. The most logical starting point in terms of numbers looks to be $7 million. That’s what the team gave to goalie Pekka Rinne in a seven-year, $49 million deal (the richest in franchise history) in November. Plus, there were nine defensemen around the league who earned at least $7 million in salary this season.

Free agency, though, resets the market every year on July 1, which means that Suter’s price tag likely increases if a deal is not struck by then. Christian Ehrhoff, for example, made $3.4 million with Vancouver in 2010-11 but made $10 million this season — the most among all NHL defensemen — in the first year of a 10-year, $40 million free agent deal with Buffalo.

“Of course we would love to have [Suter] back here on this team,” Legwand said. “Twenty-nine other teams would like to have him too — that’s no secret. Maybe it doesn’t even go to July 1. Who knows?

“Players work hard to earn the right to be an unrestricted free agent. He’s earned that right now.”

Suter drew enormous media attention during the All-Star weekend when he said he did not expect to re-sign with the Predators before July 1. He also did not rule out the possibility of a return to Nashville, but almost as soon as the words left his mouth speculation about the possibility of trading for Suter began in some of the league’s largest markets.

A day later he attempted to quiet all the chatter. But all the way up until the day of the league’s trade deadline, general manager David Poile fielded questions about whether or not he planned to make a deal for Suter rather than risk losing him months later.

“It’s been a lot of ups and downs,” Suter said. “Just an emotional roller coaster.”

The fact remains that his situation does not exist in a vacuum. If he decides he is best served playing elsewhere, will his close friend and longtime defense partner Shea Weber do the same as soon as he’s able? Weber, after all, opted for arbitration last summer rather than accept an long-term offer from the Predators, a move that strongly suggested he intended to see what happened with Suter.

If Suter does sign, what does that mean in terms of the team’s ability to sign others such as Jordin Tootoo, who will be an unrestricted free agent, or restricted free agents such as Radulov and Patric Hornqvist, who look to be worthy of more than the standard 10 percent increase in qualifying offers?

Either way, it seems, Nashville’s roster will be noticeably different a year from now.

 

 

This is not the first time Suter has unwittingly found himself at the center of a critical moment for the franchise.

In December 2002, a shakeup in the scouting department resulted in Director of Player Personnel Paul Fenton being placed in charge of the team’s draft efforts. The 2003 NHL Entry Draft was to be held in Nashville the following June, so the Predators needed to make a big splash. With a shortage of defensemen throughout the organization, they also needed to focus on that area.

“I never had to run the entry draft,” Fenton, now the assistant GM said. “… I never had to be the guy that said, ‘This is my pick.’

“I knew from the very beginning. I just saw [Suter’s] smarts and thought they were second-to-none. There was no convincing me that he wasn’t the guy I wanted.”

He said he watched Suter play as often as possible during the 2002-03 season and consistently was impressed. The crowning moment came at the World Junior Championships in a game between the United States and Russia, led by a young Alexander Ovechkin. Early in that contest, Suter blocked a shot with the unprotected part of his knee and had to be helped off the ice.

“He was back on the bench like a minute and a half later, you could tell he couldn’t skate at all,” Fenton said. “He was literally on one leg and played against Ovechkin the rest of the night, shutting him down with just his smarts — body positioning, stick positioning, using one-handed leverage.

“It was one of the best performances I had ever seen for a kid who was hurt like that. … The way he reacted, I had absolutely no doubt that he was the guy I wanted to take in the draft.”

In a draft that produced elite NHL talent such as Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, Carolina center Eric Staal, New Jersey center Zach Parise, Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook, Los Angeles center Jeff Carter and Nashville’s recent acquisition, Andrei Kostitsyn (the 10th overall pick), Fenton said he had Suter rated as the third-best player overall.

A goalie (Fleury) and five forwards were taken before Nashville’s first choice (seventh). The selection of Suter started a run of three straight defensemen as Atlanta took Braydon Coburn eighth and Calgary took Dion Phaneuf ninth. Coburn and Phaneuf both have become quality NHL players in their own right, but each — unlike Suter — already is with his second franchise as a result of a trade near the deadline, something Poile refused to do with Suter.

That same year, the Predators got Weber and Kevin Klein, and — beginning last season — there have been times when five of the six defensemen in uniform for a particular game were Nashville’s own draft picks. Also last season, Weber was named captain and Suter was installed as one of the alternate captains.

Suter was the first of that group to break into the NHL, just two years after being drafted. In seven seasons, he has played all 82 games three times and never has appeared in fewer than 70.

“You can see what a staple he’s become for us,” Fenton said.

 

 

That’s part of what makes it difficult for some to imagine that he would pursue free agency and possibly leave the Predators.

However, hockey is his family business, so it’s likely he understands better than most the opportunities free agency affords, not just in terms of money but in how to maximize one’s professional situation. His father is Bob Suter, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that pulled off the so-called “Miracle on Ice,” who played and coached professionally in the minor leagues. One of his uncles is Gary Suter, who was an NHL defenseman for 17 seasons with three different franchises.

Those family ties certainly served him well when he was a top draft prospect. They helped separate him from a sizable group of talented 18-year-olds and could help fuel his eventual departure from the team that drafted him.

“Obviously, the lineage with his dad … the similarities that he has, playing like his uncle Gary, whom I played with, is incredible,” Fenton said. “But he’s even more competitive, I think, than Gary was. … It’s sneaky competitiveness to win puck battles, to gain body position, to compete.”

In other words, it’s the little things, the things that mean so much over the course of an 82-game season and even more during a best-of-seven playoff series.

“The teams that are the consistent teams going into the playoffs and throughout the playoffs are the ones that usually win,” Suter said. “You look at Boston last year, they were playing well and they got in the playoffs and just kept chugging along.

“Obviously, we want to go further than just winning the second round. You have to keep that consistency throughout the playoffs to be successful.”

The clear payoff if the Predators can produce that sort of consistency over the next two months is that they will get their names on the Stanley Cup. It also might be enough to convince Suter to sign on the dotted line and maintain a rare measure of consistency in his career.

“Now that it comes to the playoffs you can recharge the battery and get it going again,” Suter said. “The further your team goes — if your team wins the Stanley Cup, I’ve always said it — everything takes care of itself.

“Now is the fun time of the year.”