ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In the middle of a hotly contested playoff series and with a crucial game in the offing, individual awards may seem relatively inconsequential.
But when it was revealed Tuesday morning that Ryan Suter was a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman, it was a form of vindication for both the player who made the heartbreaking decision to leave the only team he'd known in the Nashville Predators for the franchise that wagered $98 million in salary and 13 years of term that Suter was the kind of player who could help transform an organization.
After a brief period of transition at the start of the lockout-shortened season, the Minnesota Wild's Suter has been the league's best defenseman. He led the NHL in total ice time per game at 27:16, was second among defensemen in assists and third in points.
If you talk with Suter's coaches, teammates and opponents, you find a universal respect for his skill set. He is not a bruising force like Shea Weber, his former partner in Nashville, or Niklas Kronwall in Detroit. He may not be the game's swiftest skater -- both Subban and Letang possess explosive speed. But Suter is the complete package in a way both understated and impressive and reminiscent of former Detroit Red Wings great Nicklas Lidstrom.
One Western Conference GM spoke recently about the ease with which Suter plays as much as he does, almost always against opposing teams' top players. Earlier in the postseason, players in another series were marveling at Suter's performance in Game 1 of the Wild's series against the Chicago Blackhawks, when he played 41:08.
Wild coach Mike Yeo said it's a shame most Norris voters don't get to see Suter up close and appreciate how important he is to the Wild.
"You don't realize what a good person this is," Yeo said. "You don't realize what a tremendous leader he is, the character that he has. He's been a huge part obviously with his play, but as much with his attitude, his character and his personality in really helping our organization take a big step."
Suter and Zach Parise shocked the hockey world last summer when they signed identical 13-year deals with the Wild worth $98 million apiece. In making the move, Suter left the team that drafted and nurtured him and Weber, his longtime defense partner and a former Norris Trophy finalist himself. There were questions about whether Suter could assume the kind of leadership role that he did not necessarily have to play in Nashville given the large shadow cast by Weber.
Yet, as the season wore on, the Wild asked more and more of Suter, including partnering him with rookie Jonas Brodin. While he was not a finalist for the Calder Trophy, Brodin's evolution has been dramatic and much of it can be traced to his proximity to Suter.
Although Suter has yet to record a point in the series, he has been playing shift for shift against the Blackhawks' top line of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and rookie-of-the-year nominee Brandon Saad and has helped stifled its point-production.
"When you play against him for a few years, you kind of see everything that he brings to the table," teammate Kyle Brodziak said. "He's strong, a good skater and very smart. He pretty much has all the elements you need to be a good hockey player. Can't say that he exceeded expectations, but they were pretty high coming in."
"He's very calm. It's good to have in the locker room," Brodziak added. "He's definitely a guy that doesn't get rattled, and that's important in a game where the emotions get so high. To have a guy that is able to stay composed in those types of scenarios, it's very important for your hockey team."
Not surprisingly, the low-key Suter was more interested in talking about Tuesday's Game 4 than individual honors.
"I'm really honored, I really am. But my focus isn't on that," Suter said. "Maybe someday looking back I say, 'Wow.' But it's preparing for tonight. It's going to be more intense than last game and the game before. Keeping my mind focused on the game is the most important thing."