Blackhawks’ Pius Suter learning to adapt to differences between European and NHL hockey

Suter has adjusted to the NHL’s narrower rink, increased emphasis on dump-ins and forechecking and liberally officiated faceoffs during his first pro season in North America.

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Pius Suter has noticed numerous differences coming over from Europe.

AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker

Dressed in a light blue shirt, dark jacket and round glasses before Thursday’s game, Blackhawks center Pius Suter looked like a doppelganger of his coach, Jeremy Colliton.

Suter and Colliton have similar minds, too. Like Colliton, for whom the traits are essential to his job, Suter has shown himself in interviews to be an astute, perceptive hockey analyst and player.

“He is an intelligent player,” Colliton said Friday. “It’s nice to work with those guys who, when you have a conversation about their game, are on the same wavelength with you.”

In his first NHL season after more than five years in the Swiss league, Suter has proved to be another smart pickup by the Hawks’ European scouting staff, tallying a respectable 13 points in 31 games while being deployed all over the lineup.

He wasn’t exactly an unknown commodity in Switzerland, earning league MVP honors in 2019-20 after scoring 53 points in 50 games. But only certain players are able to successfully make the Atlantic leap, no matter how successful they are in Europe, because the styles of hockey played on the two continents are significantly different.

The difference in rink size is well known. NHL rinks are 200 feet long and 85 feet wide, whereas European and Olympic rinks are slightly shorter (197 feet long) but substantially wider (98 feet wide).

The effects of that size difference are more nuanced, though. With less horizontal space available, carrying the puck into the offensive zone is more difficult in the NHL. But exiting the defensive zone with possession is also more difficult, making forechecking more effective. All told, that makes dump-ins more common than carry-ins in North America — even though the opposite is true in Europe.

Suter’s intelligence has allowed him to gradually adapt to that major tactical change.

“It’s a bit different game because of the size: it’s more chipping, more board battles,” he said. “You have to work on it a little bit and [I’m] getting used to it, that’s all.

“[To] just chip it down, you have to realize it’s a good play, too. You’re going to get it back. In Europe, you don’t chip as much; you try to carry it in all the time . . . Sometimes [dump-ins are] the right play to do.”

Suter has also noticed a number of things “on the referee’s side” that are enforced differently in the NHL. 

Not being allowed to change lines after icings or when goalies cover the puck on shots from beyond the red line were two initially startling rule differences. He discovered faceoffs are officiated less strictly, too.

“You get to use your skates way more” during NHL faceoffs, he said. “You don’t necessarily have to go for the puck. Sometimes you can just tie up [your opponent]. Some guys kind of box you out. You couldn’t do that at home. It was [about] stick quickness, just getting the stick in and trying to get it back. That’s just an interpretation of the rules.”

Those faceoff differences have been tougher for Suter than the dump-ins. Like most of the Hawks’ centers, he has struggled on draws, winning just 43.1% of his 341 this season.

But the fact Suter has even played center consistently this season is impressive in itself. To make the Europe-to-North America jump is challenging; to immediately handle a center’s diverse responsibilities demonstrates a great mind for hockey.

“It is an adjustment, but he’s done very well,” Colliton said. “I don’t think we necessarily expected him to jump in and play top-six minutes as a centerman. Coming into this season, with [Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach] out . . . we wanted to try him at center in camp and early on.

“But we’ve got to be pleased with how he’s adjusted to that role. [He has] been a big part of the success we’ve been able to have.”

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