Perhaps Mike Yeo has never played the Oregon Trail game. If you have, you know that if you overwork your oxen, they're going to die from exhaustion. That's just life on the Trail.
Though Yeo doesn't have any oxen, he has defensemen and they're kind of like the same thing.
Right now, the Minnesota Wild have the busiest defenseman in the NHL. Ryan Suter is 19 games into his season and has spent almost half the year on the ice, seeing 564 minutes, 49 seconds of action. He is averaging 29:43 per game, taking 32.2 shifts a night. That's a lot.
His workload over the past three games reached historic levels. According to Elias Sports, Suter's 108:19 over that stretch is the most by any NHL player over that same span since time on ice began being tracked in 2000-01.
Maybe he's not working as hard as those little digital oxen, but it's close.
It's not like Suter is being forced into anything. This is his desired level of use. As he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune recently, he would be "upset" if his minutes were cut.
"I think when you're younger, you run around and try to do too much," Suter told the Star-Tribune. "As you get older, you learn. ... I feel more involved in the game when I'm out there. I don't want this to be a big deal. It's not fair to my teammates. But I like to be out there."
The 28-year-old rearguard has already topped 30 minutes in 10 of 19 games this year, the same number of occasions he topped 30 over 48 games last season. The next closest player in the league in terms of average time on ice is Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman, who averages a full two and a half minutes less per game.
As good as Suter is and as much as he wants to keep this workload up, the Wild are going to have to find a way to get him some rest in the coming weeks. No player has averaged more than 28 minutes a game during the regular season since Bryan McCabe led the league in 2005-06 with an average of 28:17 for the Maple Leafs.
In games that Suter has played 30 minutes or more, the team is 5-1-4, including a 4-0-1 run over the past five contests, so the results have been a bit mixed. Meanwhile, the Wild are off to a really strong start in the tough Central Division with an 11-4-4 record, four points shy of first-place Chicago.
Though Suter has handled such a heavy load incredibly well this season and the Wild are typically a better team with him on the ice, this kind of usage is unlikely to be sustainable in an 82-game season. There is the obvious worry about fatigue setting in during the latter months while the team is presumably in the heat of what should be a tooth-and-nail battle for playoff positioning. Not to mention the postseason, where this level of use is basically expected.
Yeo knows this.
"We want to make sure we're looking at the big picture," the Wild coach told the Star Tribune about his top defenseman's usage. "We want to make sure we aren't burning him out."
Burnout is a very real concern, even for a player who enjoys the minutes he's playing. That's especially true in an Olympic year.
Suter is almost certainly going to average 28 minutes or more while with Team USA in Sochi as that squad's No. 1 defenseman. So instead of playing an 82-game campaign, assuming he stays healthy, Suter is looking at 88 or so games before the playoffs. Plus the Olympics compresses the schedule a bit, meaning fewer multiday stretches without a game. Even an extra six or so games tacked on for an already busy defenseman can have a vastly negative impact when the stakes are highest.
The problem is that the Wild's defensive corps kind of needs Suter to carry the load he does. With only one other player -- Keith Ballard -- with more than 200 games of NHL experience on the blue line, the gap between Suter and the rest of the defense is wide when it comes to both experience and ability.
Jonas Brodin is obviously turning himself into a spectacular de facto No. 2, but Brodin is averaging nearly five whole minutes less than Suter and is in only his second season. He has yet to experience an 82-game campaign at the NHL level.
Additionally, the Wild are now without Ballard, who was placed on injured reserve this week. So there's even less experience in the current lineup.
Playing Suter into the ground approaching the quarter pole is unlikely to bring the best results in March and April. So something has to give.
The Wild, which have built a roster mainly from within while adding key pieces like Suter and Zach Parise in free agency and nabbing Jason Pominville in a trade last year, might need to find a way to lean a little more on guys like Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner, but they're still young, too.
Though the younger players will continue to mature and grow their responsibilities, the Wild also have the option of upgrading the defense via trade. If they could find someone to cut into even two minutes a night for Suter, that's a big step in the right direction.
Finding that player is going to be challenging as the low salary cap is making deals a lot harder to complete this year with so many teams up against the cap. The Wild are one of the teams with some wiggle room, but only a little bit.
Ideally, the Wild would probably want to target an NHL veteran with some playoff experience who is capable of playing in all situations. However, just finding someone to eat some minutes, regardless of age or experience, could work well enough.
The Wild have built a solid base of prospects, but already dipped into that a bit with the Pominville trade last year. So their options may be a bit limited in what they can acquire.
The Florida Panthers are trying to sell as much as they can at this point. With the trade of Kris Versteeg to Chicago on Thursday, they're on their way. It sounds as though Erik Gudbranson is the only defenseman general manager Dale Tallon is unwilling to move at this point. That leaves Mike Weaver and Dmitry Kulikov as cost-effective possibilities. Neither would make the Wild a ton better, but both come at a relatively low price and are good enough to provide some relief for Suter.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing options is Jake Gardiner. Though his play of late may keep him in Toronto, the Maple Leafs were rumored to be in talks with other teams about moving the young defenseman earlier in the season. Gardiner is a Minnesota native and is in the last year of his entry-level deal. He averages over 19 minutes a night and might fit within Yeo's more offense-friendly system.
It's hard to see what pieces the Wild could offer to acquire Gardiner, but he seems like the kind of player that would be on Minnesota's wish list.
Suter is being a good soldier in eating the minutes he does and making the team better when he's on the ice, but 29 minutes a night for 82 games may be playing with fire. It won't be easy to find a way, but the Wild will have to try to give the big guy some help even if he doesn't want any.