Needless to say, the role isn’t a glamorous one, but necessary in the National Hockey League playoffs—12 to 15 minutes each game of hard-nose, physical, and grind-it-out hockey.
Last season the Minnesota Wild’s third defensive pair, Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner, watched the playoffs from the press box. Prosser was a healthy scratch for all five games of the team’s first round loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, while Stoner was injured during the first game of the series.
"You get so excited for playoffs and I had a disappointing end,” Stoner said. “This year I want to contribute and be a leader and help take us as far as I can.”
Of the Wild defenseman, Stoner and Prosser are not relied upon to fill up the stat column, well, except for maybe in hits and blocked shots, as they bring a physical element to the club’s blue line. The duo knows its role and knows it well, something that helps when the game ramps up during the playoffs.
“I know that I need to be a shutdown defenseman, good on the penalty kill and make a good first breakout pass,” Prosser said. “Keep the game simple, and that's what helps me.”
Simplifying the game seems to have come easier for the Wild’s blue line this season. The Wild D-corps was one of the stingiest in the NHL during the regular season, allowing only 2.42 goals per game, good for seventh best in the League. The team was fifth best in shots against, allowing only 27.7 opponent attempts on goal per game.
Throughout the season, different players on Minnesota’s blue line played critical roles in helping the Wild earn the first wild card spot in the Western Conference. Only Ryan Suter played all 82 regular season games.
“We feel that we've got a very deep group, and every player is different,” Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said. “Some guys are a little more defensive minded, and have a little more edge in their game, then you have other guys who are a little more transition and puck moving. But every guy to a 'T' is able to bring what we need of them, then they go ahead and bring a little more to the table and that's made everybody a good fit.”
Of course, Suter garners most of the headlines in the group. Last season’s Norris Trophy runner up continued his stellar two-way play this year. On Jan. 4 against the Washington Capitals, Suter became the first Wild defenseman to record a hat trick, including two power-play goals only 42 seconds apart. Known more for his puck moving, the blueliner finished second on the team in assists (35).
As impressive as those numbers might appear, Suter’s most remarkable feat is his ability to chew up time on ice like a high school student smacking gum in detention. He led NHL in time on ice per game (29:24), more than two minutes more than the second best. His total TOI was the most since Brian Leetch in 1998-99.
“He plays better the more he plays,” Stoner said. “I'm sure every team that comes in and plays him is told to come in hard, finish (their checks) hard, be tough on him and make his minutes hard, but I haven't noticed any difficulty on him.”
Suter skated more than 30 minutes in a mind-boggling 37 games this season. During a three game stretch (Nov. 7-13), he totaled 108:19, the most by any NHL player since TOI started being tracked in 2000-01.
“He's got iron lungs, some guys are freaks that way and can play big minutes and it doesn't faze him. They do the VO test that tells how much oxygen in his lungs, so he must kill that test,” Stoner laughed. “It seems like at the end of the game he's playing his best minutes, so it kind of goes against everything you've been taught as a player. He's an elite athlete.”
Somehow, the best players manage to slow the game down, finding angles that no one else sees. At times, Suter makes the game look effortless with his unforced skating stride and expert defensive positioning. He also makes the game easier on his teammates.
“Top players always make the players that they play with better,” Yeo said. “They take on a little bit more of a workload and they give other guys a chance to be slotted where they should be.
“You look at the way he defends and the things he does on the ice, he just helps everybody be better.”
Partnered with both Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin during parts of the season, Suter helped both young defensemen develop their game. Spurgeon set a career mark in points (26), assists (21) and tied last year’s total in goals (5). Coming off last season’s NHL All-Rookie Team honors, Brodin set new highs in goals (8), assists (11) and points (19).
With the Wild’s emerging blue line, Yeo restructured the club’s defensive and offensive approach in the offseason. It was in part because of the personal, starting with the back end, and wanting to play more of an up-tempo style.
“We try to be a little more aggressive with how we attack with the puck, but also in the mentality of how we play without the puck,” Yeo said. “We wanted to become less of a back-up team and a little more of an in your face team. A big part of the reason we felt this could work for us is because we've got a mobile group. A group of defenseman, when they execute, they should be able to follow the puck up ice and join the play and be a part of the attack.”
Getting involved in the rush offensively, even for the defensive defensemen like Prosser, helps set up the team’s neutral zone play.
“We all can do that, whoever is a part of the play, we're all able and willing to skate up the ice and get into the play and get involved,” Prosser said. “We've all be able to get involved and it helps with our gaps.”
“That should allow them to be in their face a little more, plus they have the speed to get back if they do get the puck behind us,” Yeo added.
This change in approach gave the defensemen more confidence to join the rush, but also more patience in the team’s neutral zone regroups. While the team wants to possess the puck more, the blueliners are responsible for finding the forwards in transition. Having Yeo’s conviction has had a positive impact on the blue line as a whole.
Arguably, no player on the team’s roster has seen a greater improvement, and an increased self-assurance, than Marco Scandella. After spending nearly the entire year with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate last season, the Houston Aeros, the blueliner’s game blossomed in his fourth year as a pro. The 24-year-old set career highs in points (3-14=17) and plus/minus (plus-10).
In the playoffs, his game has earned more ice time, often matching up against the Colorado Avalanche’s top line. Scandella is averaging more than two minutes more in the series than during the regular season.
“He's a huge part of our team,” Yeo said. “Not a real big point-getter, not a guy that's going to be statistically one of our leaders. But when you're talking about skating ability, defending ability, reach, the ability to close time and space quickly, his ability to close in the defensive zone and get after those guys.
“For him, in a lot of ways like our team, when he's gotten better our team's gotten better.”
As good as the blue line has been this season, it is the team’s overall approach in its own end that has them looking to knock off one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
Although it’s not the most fashionable part of the game, it’s an all-in commitment from the entire team that has made the Wild so stout. It’s not headline grabbing, but it’s a result-driven process.
“I think our whole team is (underrated) defensively—obviously goaltending is a huge part of it, but you look at what has happened to our goaltending situation this year, to be where we're at goals against-wise, that's a huge compliment to our defensive group,” Yeo said. “You're defensive group is always going to look better when your forwards are playing a certain style in front of them, and our forwards are committed to the defensive game.”
While a mindset buy-in from the entire team, the club’s forwards are quick to heap praise on the blue line, even if they’re overlooked in other circles.
"They mean everything for the team, to be honest to you,” Wild captain Mikko Koivu said. “It starts with the defensive mindset and the defensive game, and I believe that's how you win hockey games.
“They've been unbelievable for us.”
While defensemen take shifts in pairs, it’s hard to separate them as an entire unit. The Wild’s is a tight knit group, picking up one another if any guy falters. Each player is given a specific task to carry out, and they know what has to be done.
“Everybody's got a different job to do,” Yeo said. “Everybody's got a different piece to the puzzle and you've got to be sure to bring your part.”
“We've all be doing our part and playing our roles,” Prosser adds. “We all know our role, if your supposed to get a point on the power play or be shutdown defensively blocking shots on the penalty kill. Knowing your role is a big key and we've all been performing them at a high level this year.”