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The Suzuki line has even more to give

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Like just about everyone else, the chemistry is lacking right now, but that could change in a hurry.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Back in October, when the Montreal Canadiens signed Tyler Toffoli to a four-year contract, I wrote an article on his style of play, his strengths and weaknesses, and his fit in the lineup. I projected that Suzuki would end up being the best partner for the scorer:

Suzuki is probably the pivot who could best complement Toffoli’s talent. As the young playmaker uses the same pace shifts and defensive manipulation, you can easily picture them making short work of overaggressive defenders. Fitting them on the same line might require some tinkering, but as the right-winger reportedly can play the other wing if need be, the coaching staff has options.

So when Dominique Ducharme moved Toffoli up to Suzuki’s wing last week following Josh Anderson’s injury, I watched attentively. Would chemistry form? In my mind, Montreal could get a dominant offensive duo out of the move.

The line has been effective. It finished with the highest expected goals last night against the Winnipeg Jets, but what I didn’t expect was that Jonathan Drouin, placed on the other wing, would end up being the motor or the glue of the unit, helping connect their plays, steal the puck back, and break it out of the zone.

Nick Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli haven’t been as dominant as anticipated. They haven’t been on the same page in a lot of offensive sequences. Sure, they connected for a goal when Suzuki deflected a puck in the net off Toffoli’s skate, but overall the trio they form with Drouin has missed on their offensive chances.

You can look at that in two different ways. Either it isn’t meant to be, or it is a sign of untapped potential. After all, the line generally got the upper hand on opponents without operating at full capacity.

Most of the missed chances have been due to suboptimal timing or positioning, like a player standing in coverage, not moving to get open, or arriving too early to a scoring area, allowing defenders to surround him before the puck gets there. The line is also not trusting each other to get the puck or move it quickly through or around opponents.

All three players are more skilled than your average NHLer. I am not saying they should cheat offensively, but they can be a little more confident that their teammate will win one-on-ones and pull off clever passes or retrievals.

Allow me this tangent. Montreal too often rushes in a straight line like in the image below. This makes it easy for the defence to shut down the attack. In those situations, one defender effectively covers two attackers as he can cut the passing lane between them.

It looks like the Habs have a two-on-one on the top half of the ice here, but as the stick of the defender sits in the passing lane, the only way Artturi Lehkonen can reach Jeff Petry in the wide lane is through a difficult hook- or slip-pass. Even if Lehkonen manages that pass, Petry lacks a way inside. He can’t attack the slot as easily as if he dropped behind Lehkonen instead of leveling with him.

In other words, straight-line attacks tend to kill odd-man rushes.

Toffoli, Suzuki, and Drouin can create more off the rush. We have seen them attempt to do it multiple times per game, but once again their timing and movement haven’t been on point. They miss drop-passes, occasions to exchange positions, and use pockets of space.

Anderson is close to a return, and his line with Suzuki and Drouin created a lot of goals for the Canadiens at the beginning of the year, but I would like to see what Toffoli could accomplish given a bit more time on Suzuki’s wing. The right intentions are there, but the execution is off by a step or two. A little bit more confidence, an inspiring tic-tac-toe play, and the unit could take off, elevating the team’s whole offence.