TORONTO -- Don't be fooled by that early exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Defenseman Ryan Suter is convinced his Minnesota Wild are close -- really close -- to being legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
"Hopefully that's the case," Suter said this week.
Suter's reason for the upbeat take on the Wild's chances of winning a championship comes from the fact they were eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup in two of the past three seasons. In fact, the Chicago Blackhawks have sent the Wild packing in each of the past three seasons, but in 2013-14 Chicago lost the Western Conference Final.
"To lose to the champions, it [stinks] for sure, but looking back I think it gives us hope for the future to know that we're right there," Suter said. "Obviously we didn't play well and got swept in four games, but I think our team is moving in the right direction."
After eliminating the St. Louis Blues in a six-game, first-round series last season, Minnesota was swept by Chicago. On paper that looks like a slaughter; on the ice, however, it was close. Three of the games were decided by one goal.
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"You take positives out of it," Suter said. "They are the team that ended up winning the Stanley Cup, so we didn't lose to a team that lost in the next round; we lost to the team that won the Cup two out of three years."
When the Wild finally make their mark, you can bet Suter will have a big hand in the success. Not only is he one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL, he is also the League's top minutes-muncher.
The 30-year-old Madison, Wisc., native has led the League in ice time in each of the past three seasons. Last season he averaged 29:03 per game, four seconds more than Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. The season before, Suter averaged 29:24, and in 2012-13 it was 27:16.
Suter said playing that much doesn't sap him of valuable energy late in the season.
"I don't think you pace yourself," he said. "You pick and choose your spots when you are going to go (with the puck). Guys are too good to try to pace yourself. When you try to do that, the puck ends up in the back of your net and then you're not on the ice."
Suter said there are keys to playing as much as he does. For starters, you have to be a thinker; you cannot simply rely on natural instincts.
"The guys that are on the ice a lot are trying to anticipate plays and think the plays through rather than going out and trying to run opponents through the boards," Suter said. "You have to always try to be in the best position to make plays."
Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher said Suter is a stabilizing influence on a young blue line.
"He doesn't get too high or too low," Fletcher said. "He logs a lot of minutes and plays in every situation and he doesn't panic. He finds a way to go out shift after shift and make the right play almost every time."
Because of NHL salary-cap considerations, the Wild did not have an active offseason (Minnesota is $2.5 million under the cap of $71.4 million, according to war-on-ice.com). They added highly touted college defenseman Mike Reilly, but for the most part will go with the same group as last season.
So what will be different?
"Hopefully not a lot," Suter said. "We just need to be more consistent right from the start. Last year we were good and then we were awful and then we were great. If we can just be solid all year, that will serve us well."
Suter said the confidence the Wild has is largely due to its goaltending. He said he believes Devan Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper give Minnesota one of the best tandems in the NHL.
Having signed a 14-year contract worth $98 million in 2012, Suter said he is financially secure and that his entire focus now is winning the Stanley Cup.
"This summer it really sank in that I'm not going to get many more cracks at it," Suter said. "That's why I play now. Everything else is taken care of. Now it's all about winning. Everything you do relates to winning the Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal or a World Cup gold medal. Those are the things that you train for in the middle of summer when you get up at 6 a.m. You want that opportunity to compete for the championship."