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Micro Analysis: Nick Suzuki’s “inside” game

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The coach mentioned Suzuki’s need to play more inside. This is what he’s referring to.

Detroit Red Wings v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

When asked specifically about Nick Suzuki’s performance against the Detroit Red Wings, Claude Julien had this to say:

‘‘Tonight, he was one of the players I would have liked to see play a little bit more inside. He still has things to learn. He’s a good player, but we need to not get carried away and think he is a star already.’’ - via RDS (translated)

A lack of presence around the blue paint is often the first conclusion drawn from a game like the one against the Wings. Only one of the Habs 42 shots went in, ergo, those must have been lower-danger shots.

The reality is that the Habs dominated the Wings, not just in the shot department, but also had a significant edge in attempts from high-danger areas. But for the coaching staff, the randomness of hockey can’t be the reason for a loss. Just saying ‘‘pucks sometimes don’t go in’’ would not make them good coaches. They want to work with their group to find a solution.

So Julien didn’t want to praise anyone in this press conference. In his eyes, all players needed to be better and play harder; they needed to get to the high-danger areas of the ice because that’s where the goals are scored. And that included Suzuki.

The rookie is a playmaker. He wants time with the puck, and the space to make his moves. He looks to use the width and depth of the ice to get a chance to turn with the puck, face his options, and look for a controlled play. He often stays outside of the defensive box to have a step on defenders in races to loose pucks.

That being said, despite his identity as a playmaker, I don’t think he needs to tune out the coach in this instance. Julien is right — to an extent. There are other ways he could produce points, and those comments should speak to him. Getting inside more is one of them, especially considering his current linemate.

Nick Cousins directs pucks to the net. This is what he knows and how he has always played. The two sequences above are ones where moving to the net-front, or doing so faster, would have benefited the offensive play of Cousins, and in turn, Suzuki. By waiting for a pass around the boards, the best play wasn’t executed.

By moving in front of the blue paint, he would have taken away the eyes of the goalie and given himself a better chance at a deflection or a rebound. His best scoring chances came when he did just that later in the game.

The best offensive generators are adaptable. They play to the strengths of others to maximize the chance of the puck going in. But of course, there is an obvious other side to the argument that is just as important: Suzuki isn’t utilized to his own strengths on his current line.

I’m one of Jordan Weal’s biggest fan, but we have seen less of what makes him so effective in the past handful of games. He isn’t the same elusive setup man and seems to barely have the puck on his stick at five-on-five. Cousins has control of it much more, but doesn’t have the vision necessary to locate Suzuki sliding in and out of coverage.

Keeping his feet moving is what the rookie has to do. Even if he does head to the net, he can’t stay there long and fight defenders for space. His balance and strength in close quarters are not what they will be in a couple of years. Arriving in the right places to tip and one-time passes as they are made will give him a better chance to get his stick on the puck and boost his production.

All in all, while Suzuki still has things to learn, it’s probably also time to try other line combinations. Ryan Poehling has been dynamite since coming back. His performance against the Red Wings equaled the one he had against the Senators on Wednesday. Pairing the two rookies together could take advantage of the skills of both.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the Habs need to win. If that means riding their rookies to see what they can do in bigger roles, so be it. If they stop thriving and start just hanging on up the lineup, move them back down.

Another suggestion: Poehling possesses the same vision as Suzuki while having a little more speed and retrieving pucks a bit better. Those are all elements that could make him a worthy tryout partner for Max Domi.