Nick Suzuki has been a focal point for many Montreal Canadiens fans for over a year now. Ever since Habs fans woke up to the news that Montreal had traded captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar, Suzuki and a 2nd round pick (CLB), the progress of Suzuki was largely tied to the success of the trade. Fortunately for Montreal, Tomas Tatar decided to have a career year, and the Canadiens also utilized the additional 2nd round pick to trade down to draft Mattias Norlinder and Jacob Leguerrier. In short, this looks like one of the better trades in recent memory for GM Marc Begervin, but, again, this is in most part due to the steady progression of Nick Suzuki.
The 2018-2019 season was quite a whirlwind for Nick Suzuki. Getting traded to Montreal about an hour after an intra-team scrimmage in Vegas, headed to the Canadiens’ training camp and getting two games in, being sent back to the Owen Sound Attack in the OHL, being named captain, cracking the World Junior roster for Team Canada, being traded to the Guelph Storm, having a monster OHL playoffs and winning the MVP and being one of the top scorers at the Memorial Cup. That, my friends, is a mouthful of events that contributed to the quick progression of Nick Suzuki.
His game has also greatly evolved since September 2018, and this is something to note was we continue to observe the evolution of Suzuki’s game into the 2019-2020 season.
Suzuki’s Major Junior Odyssey
If we look at Suzuki’s weaknesses last year, it was most certainly his top-end speed and the quickness of his execution. It always seemed like he was one second too late when it came to playing against the pros, which was made evident during his two pre-season games prior to the 2018-2019 season.
sent down to the OHL, Suzuki worked on his game as a centreman by vastly
improving his faceoffs and positional play. He became a true two-way force and
was ultimately seen as one of the three most valuable players in the OHL by
various WAR models.
After returning from an underwhelming World Junior Championship for Canada, he was traded to the Guelph Storm, where he got to play with long-time buddy and Flyers prospect Isaac Ratcliffe. He was pegged as the first line centre and proceeded to shatter his scoring rate with 49 points in 29 games. He really turned his game up a notch in the playoffs though, putting up a staggering 42 points in 24 games. However, what was really impressive is how he would rise to the occasion every time his team was on the brink of elimination, especially against powerhouse teams like the London Knights and the Saginaw Spirit. His 19 points in 8 playoff elimination games made him the true MVP of the OHL playoffs and the heart of Guelph’s run to the 2019 OHL championship.
With that said, most fans want to know one specific thing: ‘’what changed in Suzuki’s game to allow him to reach new heights in performance in junior?’’ Well, let’s take a look and see how Suzuki’s game improved in the OHL:
Growth, speed and skill
Suzuki was often said to play a little too slow for the pro-pace, and he took these criticisms to heart. Often making an extra dangle or looking for the unselfish pass in order to complete a play, but this changed after the Canadiens sent him down with clear instructions. These changes became extremely evident when all the chips were on the table in the OHL playoffs.
The below video shows Suzuki quickly receiving a pass, holding the puck down flat, quickly performing a toe-drag, before eventually unleashing his deadly shot without hesitation. In the past, Suzuki would have likely looked for a return pass back to his teammate, but, he began to have more confidence in his own speed of execution and created more high-danger scoring chances because of it.
Turning it up a notch
Having worked on his speed all year, he continued to use his lower body strength and solid positioning to not necessarily out-muscle, but outplay his opposition, making it impossible for defenders who were far bigger than him (the defender on the sequence below was easily 6’3) to catch him or poke the puck away. His quick feet and strong puck-possession skills were on full display, as he created the zone entry, beat the defender wide, cut around the net and attacked the high-danger area before unleashing a bullet. For anyone that is a fan of possession stats and Corsi, this is the kind of play you dream of.
Ultimately, as the playoffs wore on, Suzuki had to begin pulling off high-end plays in order to escape coverage and mystify the opposition. There was no play more evident than the video below, where Suzuki dropped the hockey world’s jaw to pull off one of the prettiest goals of the year. Beyond the fact that this occurred due to his sudden explosion in speed, a concern in his game early on, he was able to use his awareness and elite stick-handling to battle for a puck in motion, win the battle and roof a backhander up in the net. He did, in this one play, everything the Canadiens’ Brass had asked him to work on.
So how did Suzuki follow up winning the OHL championship in Guelph and winning the Wayne Greztky 99 Award? He puts on a show at the Memorial Cup in Halifax by pushing his team to the Semi-Finals of the tournament. His game against the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders put Suzuki’s skills on display; be it from a slick pass up the slot to a streaking teammate, or Suzuki himself kicking into an extra gear to split the defense and receive a quick pass for a one-touch shot breakaway. Although the rest of his team didn’t pull through to the finals of the tournament, it was evident to many that Suzuki was the most dominant player in Canadian major junior in 2018-2019 and he would challenge for a spot in MTL as soon as September.
In Montreal to Stay?
When Suzuki arrived in Montreal for the Canadiens’ rookie camp in early September, all eyes were on him and fellow top prospect, Ryan Poehling. Both were figureheads in the Canadiens re-tool and represented, after recently drafted Cole Caufield, the two best prospects in the organization.
Many fans were concerned at Suzuki’s lackluster performance in the rookie tournament, but alas, the youngster was still finding his rhythm and was looking to avoid injury (let us remember how Jake Evans’s concussion derailed his first pro season). Once the real training camp began, this is when Suzuki once again took his game up a notch.
In his first pre-season game, Suzuki had his positioning and vision on full display, as he continued to get acclimated to the speed and physicality of the NHL. Within the first 20 minutes of his first game vs the Florida Panthers, Suzuki was already all over the puck and picking pockets with his high Hockey IQ and active stick. Just as it seemed like he was starting to get a little bit more comfortable, a familiar play unfolded and resulted in the goal below.
He followed up his solid performance vs the Panthers with an even better showing vs the Ottawa Senators. Although points in a game are nice, it was the way he controlled the ice and zoned in on the opposition that made him very dangerous. In the play below, you are able to see his positioning and strong defensive play at work, scooping up a loose puck, establishing a zone entry and then passing the puck to a streaking teammate (again), getting the puck back along the boards, fooling a defender with a quick deke and getting a shot off quickly. That entire sequence would not have been possible a year ago, and Suzuki was just getting started!
Suzuki’s speed, deceptive and grossly underrated by many who prefer him to skate aimlessly for the sake of flashiness, was on full display in the last sequence of the pre-season. In OT, he notices the Senators players are gassed, beats Pageau to the puck by gaining inside positioning (and his strength), explodes off the boards for a quick wrap-around. Although one can argue that the Senators players were sleeping on this play, you cannot undersell the improvement in Suzuki’s game which contributed to this awesome finish.
Suzuki makes the team
Once the NHL season officially started, with Suzuki cracking the roster and forcing Claude Julien’s hand, his first few shifts were very safe and he looked to find his rhythm with the almost playoff-like pace between Montreal and Carolina. However, you still saw, even in this heightened pace, glimpses of Suzuki’s vision and passing skills at a high-end pace (as seen in the video below). He started off relying on his teammates to create offense, while limiting himself to the periphery, and this ultimately saw him drop for the 2nd line to the 4th line with Nate Thompson.
However, this was probably a blessing in disguise for Suzuki, as his play began to ramp up from that moment on. With Claude Julien continuing to use him regularly on the powerplay, Suzuki was able to get more comfortable with the speed and physicality of the game with Nate Thompson and a returning Nick Cousins. This resulted in the two veterans making more space for Suzuki, who had begun to show more tenacity along the boards and find room in tight spaces for a nice pass or a quick shot. In the sequence below, we see him jump into the play, spot Cousins harpooning the puck and positioning himself perfectly behind the defense in the slot for the quick shot. The release on this shot was excellent and the goalie had simply no chance.
Over the last two weeks, Suzuki has begun looking like a regular NHLer and really began to display his prowess in all three zones. Claude Julien began using him on the Penalty Kill, he gets regular powerplay time and sometimes plays a few shifts with Max Domi when the Canadiens need a spark. His most recent outing vs the Maples Leafs, which resulted in a goal for him (see below) showed how Suzuki has adapted better to the NHL pace. He was able to spot the play before it even happened and quickly was able to explode from a standing position and put himself in direct line for a tap-in 2-on-1.
With his speed showing great progress, his vision and hockey IQ being through the roof, it’s no wonder Nick Suzuki is seen by many to be one of the best prospects in the Canadiens’ pool. He can kill penalties, pass the puck effectively on the powerplay and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. When it came to Suzuki it was really all about pace, and, as evidenced above, he has slowly shown how good he can be once he gets more comfortable.
Suzuki: A centre in the NHL?
Suzuki was then given an opportunity to play C for a few games after Jesperi Kotkaniemi went down with a groin injury. He looked right at home here, dishing out passes and working well along the boards with linemates Paul Byron and Arturri Lekhonen. Suzuki found himself making scoring chances out of nothing and really benefited from the increase in puck possession that came with being a centre vs a winger.
Although it was mostly just to fill in before the eventual call-up of Ryan Poehling, Suzuki was able to leave a strong impression of his abilities at C, as evidence by the sequence below, where he sets up Lekhonen on a silver platter for a bomb of a shot.
I strongly believe Suzuki will continue in his development in the NHL as an eventual top-6 player, but the real question is, will he be on the right-wing his whole career, or will the cerebral scorer ultimately take his place as the unforeseen top-6 C the Canadiens need? Time will tell, but regardless of the answer, rest assured that Suzuki will be an impactful piece for the Montreal Canadiens, regardless of where he plays.