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Defining Hockey Sense: Why the puck seems to follow Nick Suzuki

An in-depth look at Suzuki’s remarkable hockey sense.

NHL: SEP 19 Preseason - Panthers at Canadiens Photo by Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

’’He is always around the puck.”

Since the start of training camp, we have heard variations of this saying for Nick Suzuki.

It’s a common way to describe hockey players, especially smart ones. Those players seem to have an unfair advantage; they get more puck touches inside a shift and the play runs through them. It’s like they put a chip inside the black rubber disc to have it consistently spring back to their stick.

What creates the feeling that the puck is following a player around is obviously not feats of engineering. It’s also not really superior hands or skating. More than the great handling of on-ice tools, what puts players consistently at the center of the action is specific aptitudes away from the puck.

Those aptitudes are incremental: the more the layers, the more effective the player.

It starts with the ability to adhere to a system.

Players have to know their role, offensively and defensively. On-ice team strategy depends on the ability to recognize appropriate positioning and assignments. If a skater fails to flow to the right spot, the whole game plan collapses and the breakdown sends all players into scramble to repair the mistake.

Not being dependable is what first keeps players out of the NHL.

The following clips of Nick Suzuki don’t aim to demonstrate his high-level skill. They are often not highlights, but simply plays a typical NHLer encounters many times during a game. It’s in those sequences that Suzuki has proven his value in this preseason.

The clip below was taken from the game against the Maple Leafs and represented the biggest challenge for Suzuki. Against the almost full lineup of the Leafs, he was tasked with centering Jonathan Drouin and Charles Hudon — two players not exactly known for their defensive acumen.

In the defensive zone, against Auston Matthews’s line, Suzuki managed to control the flow of the play and stop the opposing forwards attempts to access the slot. He showed an ability to recognize and fill optimal positioning. He didn’t execute the rookie mistake of over-committing on a specific player (which would let other opponents roam free), and he consistently tried to move the puck towards lower-danger areas.

The Leafs spent roughly 25 seconds in the defensive end. Their strong forecheck canceled the breakout attempt of the Habs, but they didn’t record a single shot on net. They were kept to the outside largely due to the timely interventions of Suzuki.

The ex-Owen Sound forward is a natural centreman, but he showed the same attention to details while placed on the wing. In game, position doesn’t seem to affect Suzuki’s effectiveness due to his added ability to anticipate where the play will progress.

Hockey is fast and complex, but also repetitive. It’s full of identifiable patterns. At it’s core, it’s a game of space; players send the puck where there is room to manipulate it into scoring chances. The team’s strategy dictate routes to find that space.

For someone who is able to make the necessary connections, movements in both the opposing or friendly formations, and even subtle changes in body language of a specific skater, can be big tells of what will come next.

In the following defensive sequences, Suzuki repairs breakdowns in coverage by reading where the puck will move based on expected system plays and the cues given by puck-carriers. He closes the passing lanes in time.

In the same video, in a breakout play under pressure, he finds Artturi Lehkonen on the upswing in the defensive zone by inferring his position from numerous previous breakouts. And in the offensive zone, he also anticipates the preferred play of Lehkonen — sending the puck towards the net — and instinctively rushes there to get his stick on the puck for two scoring chances.

After correctly anticipating and reading the play, the next step is to support it well.

How? By choosing the appropriate path or skating route. It seems easy, but not all players (even in the NHL) can consistently choose where to skate to best assist teammates in a split-second.

Once again, it’s all about space. Skating where the space is, or even more importantly, where it will be. The goal is to avoid receiving the puck inside defensive checking range, which makes a subsequent play a lot harder to execute. In defensive sequence, the objective becomes the opposite — skating in ways to take away space from opponents.

Offensively, a good skating route means filling lanes next to the puck-carrier to become a pass option, leveling with him, moving ahead into open ice, or cutting in a pocket behind for a drop pass. Defensively, it’s about approaching players at an angle to force them towards the boards and away from the defensive zone.

Suzuki showed himself capable of doing all of that in preseason. He got the puck back on his stick because of his ability to advance the play with optimal skating routes, consistently finding space and closing in on opponents.

However, when it comes to supporting the play, it’s not enough to just find the best skating route. Suzuki also distinguished himself with his sense of timing. It’s crucial for players to synchronize themselves with the play. Speed matters. A lot. But not in the sense that we often think about.

The NHL has come to favor the best possible skaters. Fast feet, fast execution, and all out is about the coaching philosophy of every organization. It makes sense as a general principle; the quicker the transition, the better the chance to catch the defence off guard. But in reality, a successful game is played inside a high, but varying, tempo.

Just like in music, it’s all about arriving on cue: at the right spot, at the right time, at the right speed.

Sometimes maximizing the chance of success means being faster than an opponent, and other times it means being slower than that opponent. Skating out of the defensive zone like a bullet out of a gun will lead to as many missed opportunities as taking one stride and gliding the whole way through the zones. Both instances will invite coverage and close passing lanes.

A player that is able to adjust his speed to the situation will be more deceptive, will give better passing options and, in turn, create more chances for his team.

There were multiple examples of Suzuki timing himself with the play to create scoring chances. The best one is probably the power-play goal of Tomas Tatar. The rookie forward circled behind the net and planted himself in front of the goalie at the same time as Tatar’s shot. By delaying his screen until the very last second, Suzuki avoided being boxed out from his net-front position by the nearby defenceman.

Suzuki’s ability to slow down his pace to best follow the play also allowed him shooting opportunities as he stayed in passing lanes others would have over-skated, too eager to rush to the offensive zone.

The same goes for in-zone play where Suzuki remained out of the defensive box until his teammates were ready to find him with a pass, only then did he take steps forwards to receive and release on net. Once again, his deceptive movement avoiding a stick check.

Great timing is directly tied with great anticipation. The only way to have a sense of when to come in is to read the play. Hockey isn’t an orchestra, there are no sheets. It’s improvisation, but improvisation where the halves of the ensemble alternate between trying to create harmony and trying to destroy it. Adept players connect the right notes through the chaos.

Suzuki’s promising future is tied to his ability to do that. He has shown himself capable of adhering to the play, of anticipating, while also timing himself to best support it. Through his layered aptitudes away from the puck, he made the most of his opportunities on-ice, but also the ones given to him in training camp.

We don’t know what the future holds for the rookie, but there is one thing that has been proven time and time again: Nick Suzuki’s potential lies in his mind for the game.