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Micro Analysis: Nick Suzuki learning the harsh duties of an NHL winger

It’s a steep learning curve for the rookie, while Mikey Reilly is showing that he can be an effective defenceman.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Nick Suzuki and winger-led breakouts

The extra half-second players get in the pre-season is gone. Nick Suzuki is discovering it. Usually, the season slowly ramps up toward its rapid pace, but with the hungry teams Montreal has faced in these first few games, the change has been quite drastic. There are high demands on the rookie; nothing his young career has prepared him for.

The winger role at the Junior and NHL levels are very different. In the CHL, the flanking forwards can get away with a lot in the defensive zone, as long as they circle up to give options to their defencemen and contribute to pushing the pace of neutral-zone transitions. In the top league in the world, wingers are instrumental in a team’s breakouts. They need sharp awareness, physical engagement, and split-second decision-making.

Those are all elements Suzuki can bring, but ones that also take time to develop. He may be a fast learner, but currently he is still at the bottom of that learning curve. This was especially evident in the first period, right after Victor Olofsson’s power-play goal when Montreal was under siege.

Suzuki found himself in a position to get the puck out of the zone after an extended defensive sequence. The puck was rimmed on the wall to his side of the ice.

It’s never easy to make a play with a puck stuck to the wall, and it gets even harder with a defenceman rapidly pinching. Suzuki looked for support and tried to slide the puck between his legs toward Max Domi who flew the zone expecting his winger to instead bang the puck off the boards for a high chip above the defence.

It was a slight miscommunication.

Suzuki didn’t have time to execute his choice of play from the position he and his centre were in. Yes, Domi could have been lower in the zone to give better pass support, but breakouts are all about adaptability. It’s rare that teams are in perfect position to exit the zone. It’s all read and react. It goes very fast, and wingers are often the ones who need to solve problems in an instant.

A couple of seconds later, Suzuki couldn’t squeeze in front of a Sabres forward and lost a race to a loose puck. Fortunately, it was rimmed around to Ben Chiarot.

There were also a couple of plays where Suzuki simply lacked awareness of either the forecheck or teammates’ stick positioning, which led to turnovers.

The last breakout in the video is the most interesting. As the play continued and Suzuki started to act as a centreman in the defensive sequence, you could immediately see him become more comfortable.

He supported his defence by staying a couple of steps away from the play, blocked a pass up the wall, then cut the path of a Sabres player escaping the low scrum. He rimmed the puck to his defence, got back in a supporting position, and jumped on a loose puck to set up Jesperi Kotkaniemi for the zone exit.

Unfortunately, despite his apparent higher level of comfort down the middle, there is no place in the lineup there for Suzuki, at least right now. He will have to continue to fine-tune his winger breakout skills.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see the rookie spend some time down the lineup in the next few games to learn that craft. Claude Julien might shuffle his starting lines, as Suzuki’s — perfectly normal — early struggles on zone exits led to more time in the defensive zone for Domi’s trio against the Sabres.

Mikey Reilly’s confidence with the puck

The third defensive pair struggled at times in the game, but Reilly made up for any previous misplay with a great sequence that led to Kotkaniemi’s goal.

Closely watch his left skate as he comes down to retrieve the puck on the back wall, and then the feet of the forechecker.

Reilly faked planting his outside edge. It sent the message to the pursuing opponent that he was going up the wall and made that opponent hesitate in that direction for half a second — enough time to create space to escape and cut to open ice, in the process also evading a second forechecker by using the net. Beating two forwards himself allowed his team to attack with numbers and establish an offensive zone presence.

It was high-level execution. I don’t think any other defenceman on Montreal’s back end can pull off plays like this one as smoothly. It’s too bad he hasn’t shown himself to be capable of consistently showing this kind of ability, because he can be an incredible asset as a puck-mover when he wants it.

Jack Eichel’s off-the-rush goal

In the second period, Eichel took advantage of an untimely line change from the Habs to score. Montreal’s neutral-zone trap wasn’t set, so he accelerated, unchallenged, to slip a shot past Keith Kinkaid.

You can see him gesturing toward his wingers before making his way. Both of his supporting forwards skated further ahead of the play: one to go stand on the wall right at the blue line and another one to cut across it. The movement of those Sabres forwards set a large gap between Eichel and the Habs’ defencemen, as they had to respect the attackers’ presence.

After he dangled Tomas Tatar (who came directly at him instead of angling him toward one side of the ice), he was free to attack the defence with a large speed difference. A talented player like Eichel doesn’t miss on such opportunities.