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Micro Analysis: Nick Suzuki’s intuitive defensive abilities

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Rookie Nick Suzuki is looking like a seasoned veteran in his own zone.

Montreal Canadiens v New York Rangers Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

Sometimes I have to remind myself that Nick Suzuki was playing in the OHL a year ago and him being an NHLer was not a given this summer. Watching him play now, there’s absolutely no doubt that he belongs — none. It’s like he’s been there for two or three seasons already. He makes you easily forget the uncertainty of most rookie debuts, especially when they come straight from Junior.

The seamless transition is even more striking when Suzuki gets to play center. He is a center. Not a perfect one, but you just have to look at him for a few shifts to see it’s natural for him. It’s what he does. It’s who he is. He’s just versatile; a centre that can play the wing.

Against the Rangers, Suzuki had a few sequences in the defensive zone where he didn’t just hold his own, but dominated the opposition, especially in the first period. He controlled the flow of the play by influencing it with his positioning and stick.

Take a look at this sequence:

The only thing you could have asked out of Suzuki here is to be quicker on the rim when he first came into into the defensive zone. He probably thought a teammate had the player behind the net, but when he saw that wasn’t the case, he immediately jumped on the next puck-carrier.

His stick protected against passes to the middle of the ice for the entire sequence. He also closed down space on opposing attackers, getting directly on their backs. When the puck or his coverage moved to the area of a teammate — Montreal plays zone defence — Suzuki switched to where he was next needed, or showed patience maintaining his position to not create holes in the overall coverage.

I especially liked this little instance where the rookie didn’t immediately chase an opposing pass behind the net, which would have him double-team the puck-carrier. He stayed on his post until Cale Fleury in the corner could switch with him, and then went back to pressuring the puck, fighting over a screen to get to the attacker with possession.

Fleury also left the front of the net to get on the opponent, so Suzuki reloaded back to the slot and took away the stick of another Ranger to prevent a tip. He then created the breakout by misdirecting the forecheck. The sequence encompassed all of the strengths of Suzuki as a defensive player: his awareness, his poise, and his switchability.

The idea from the coaching staff to play him in the middle of Nick Cousins and Jordan Weal, didn’t come out of nowhere. They see those same strengths. A permanent move down the middle might not be in the cards immediately for Suzuki, especially in a healthy lineup, but it could get hard to justify keeping him on the wing down the line.

Especially when the rookie’s play at centre contrasts with Domi’s. Domi, in certain games, wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He likes the advantage that the centre position gives him, like coming down a step behind his wingers with speed, being able to pass to both sides of the ice, and choosing his skating lane as he rushes through the neutral zone.

It can also create shooting opportunities, like this one in the first period of last night:

Especially since entering his slump, Domi has also liked to stay on the offence just a little bit longer, take just another step above the puck in order to capitalize if the other team turns the puck over in transition.

It’s not an issue when he is paired with players like Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen. They are both very conscious of defensive positioning and will pick up any of their teammates’ slack. They will rush back first in the neutral zone and be F1 in the defensive zone over Domi.

When that happens over and over again in a game like last night’s, is Domi really the centre on that line? He doesn’t even really get to take advantage of the runway the pivot position gives him if he is stuck playing high in the defensive zone most of the time.

Forwards constantly switching back to ‘‘natural’’ positions in the defensive zone (F1 is centre, F2/F3 are wings) can create breakdowns in coverage. Skaters are not only trying to sort their assignments, but also whether their teammates are trying to change position with them. There were a few examples of mistimed switches last night that created scoring chances against.

If Domi wants to maintain his hold on the centre position, he will have to go back to producing numbers comparable to last season, or really play the position to its full extent, fulfilling its every demand.

He is certainly capable of playing the role. His tenacity and quickness transfer well to defensive play, and he’s shown it in the past. Being fully engaged in his centre role is also probably the best way for him to start putting up numbers once again.

It’s sometimes hard to reconcile the idea that pressure away from the puck turns into more offence, but that’s how you create the turnovers that Domi is so great at transforming into scoring chances.

Claude Julien cutting his bench

The last shift for Jordan Weal, Charles Hudon, and Matthew Peca came at the seven-minute mark of the third. On the next faceoff for Nate Thompson, he was accompanied by Nick Suzuki and Nick Cousins.

For the end of the game, Julien made a timely in-game adjustment, cutting his bench and sending the Danault line on the ice every time he could, but also piecing together a trio made of the best elements from his bottom-six.

The head coach limited himself to three lines because he didn’t want an overtime victory; he wanted the two-points, and wanted them now. The newly created line rewarded his trust with the game-winning goal.