When Ryan Suter left the comfort of the Nashville Predators, the only organization he'd ever known, and a spot along the blue line next to Shea Weber, the question of whether or not he could lead a defense corps on his own was a prevalent one.
In the first 10 games with his new franchise, Suter scuffled a little, and a team full of new faces and high expectations did as well. The Minnesota Wild, preseason darlings for many pundits, were 4-5-1, and Suter had four points and an ugly plus/minus rating.
Then Suter faced a huge test when his old team came to town, and that night started the turnaround for him and the Wild. Suter played more than 30 minutes and assisted on both goals in a 2-1 overtime victory. From that point, Suter has been the best defenseman in the NHL, racking up points, logging more minutes than anyone and helping the new-look Wild move toward the top of the Northwest Division.
Because of that, Suter edges a couple of other worthy candidates as the leader in the Norris Trophy race at the three-quarter mark of the 2012-13 NHL season.
Suter is second to the Montreal Canadiens' P.K. Subban in points by a defenseman with 29. Suter also leads the League in time on ice, averaging more than 27 minutes per game. He also leads the NHL in total time on ice this season, just ahead of his old partner, Weber. To put it in perspective, Suter has been on the ice for nearly 312 more minutes than Subban, and about 95 minutes more than another Norris candidate who logs heavy minutes, the Phoenix Coyotes' Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Since Suter was paired with rookie Jonas Brodin, they have been a dominant duo, and the Wild are 18-10-1 since that slow start. Suter plays heavy minutes in all situations -- among defensemen he is first at even-strength, sixth on the power play, and still leads the Wild defensemen in shorthanded time on ice at 2:25 per game.
Suter and Brodin face the toughest competition at even strength for the Wild and are the best defensemen on the team at driving possession.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes -- The man known as "OEL" could be considered the advanced-statistics champion in this category. Ekman-Larsson has faced the third-toughest quality of competition among defenseman with at least 20 games played, according to the website Behind The Net. He also leads all defenseman Corsi relative to the quality of competition, proving he is a huge driver of possession on a team not necessarily known for it.
Ekman-Larsson also logs a ton of minutes (more than 25 per game) and has been great on the penalty kill -- he plays more than three minutes per game on the PK and has been on the ice for 10 goals against at 4-on-5. The biggest sticking point in his Norris candidacy is the lack of points -- Ekman-Larsson has three goals and 21 points in 39 games.
P.K. Subban, Canadiens-- Subban's resume is a tough one to decipher. He's been the best defenseman in the League … on the power play. His points per 60 minutes at 5-on-4 (8.46, which is 2.17 more than the next-best player and nearly four more than Suter) is amazing, and in a League where power-play goals have been harder to come by the past couple of seasons, worth celebrating.
Part of Subban's success is tied to Montreal's ability to draw penalties better than any other team. The Canadiens have had a League-high 157 power plays and scored an NHL-best 35 extra-man goals. Subban's prowess on the power play cannot be overlooked, but teammate Andrei Markov also deserves plenty of credit, as well. Remember that the Montreal power play was also great in the first couple weeks of the season when Raphael Diaz was next to Markov until Subban signed a contract and joined the team.
Subban's numbers at even strength also are strong, but not on the same level as Suter and Ekman-Larsson (or a couple of other Norris candidates who just missed this list). Subban has been on the ice for 30 goals for and 16 against at even strength, and over the course of the season has faced tough competition with partner Josh Georges, but not as much as the general narrative from the media suggests. A look at Behind The Net's quality of competition (QoC) ratings reveals that Montreal coach Michel Therrien mixes and matches his defense parings against top lines more than people think.
Subban is also playing far less on the penalty kill (1:27 per game, sixth among Canadiens defensemen), and has four goals and 11 points at even strength.
Though Subban leads all defensemen in goals (10) and points (32), all those extra minutes for Suter matter. And Ekman-Larsson's ability to drive possession and produce against the toughest competition matters, as well. Subban is having an extraordinary season, but he falls just short of being the best candidate for the Norris Trophy.