It can take some time for prospects who rely on their ability to read the game to ramp up their play. When it clicks, you see sparks. It happened with Jesperi Kotkaniemi last year. Now it's Nick Suzuki’s turn.
The Florida Panthers didn’t bring their best act in town. In fact, the lineup was full of players who will only be called on for replacement duty during the season. As it was only his second game among NHL players, Suzuki still had to rise up not only to the challenge on the opposite side of the ice, but also his direct competition to potentially earn a spot in the Montreal Canadiens’ forward group.
What strikes you about his performance is the way his Junior game translates to the professional level. His secondary assist on Thursday night was a testament to his desire to control the play, which has led him to success in his hockey career to date. In the right situation, it seems Suzuki can create offence in the same way even at a higher tempo.
Most players, eager to prove themselves, would have accelerated toward the net with the space to do so. Suzuki, always looking to make the most dangerous play possible, expertly deflected the puck up to his stick in a position to threaten the defence, and immediately lifted his head up and took a moment to survey the ice. Brett Kulak jumped toward the net, and Suzuki hit him in stride for a tip-in goal.
Perhaps Suzuki’s best ability is freezing the defence. He did it in the clip above, but also on a few more occasions during the game. He remains deceptive in the way he handles the puck, forces opponents to over-commit, and uses the window it creates to make a play to the middle of the ice.
The sequence below is another good example of this. He entered he offensive zone along the wall and tried to find Phil Varone by lobbing the puck to the front of the net. Then Suzuki skated away from the defensive box to be a passing option as the Habs formation cycled the puck high in the zone. He received a feed from Shea Weber and saw an opposing defenceman coming straight at him.
Suzuki kept the puck on his hip, which made him a threat to slide it to the slot. As the opponent tried a wide sweeping pokecheck, Suzuki dragged the puck around, creating the space for a backhand shot from inside the dots.
He finished the sequence by crossing the front of the net at the same time a point shot was fired, avoiding being boxed out of the firing lane by the defender. This sense of timing will benefit him in his career as a smaller forward.
He is currently learning how to balance the sequences where he can freeze the defence in the above ways and the times when he needs to keep himself and the puck in motion in offensive-zone possessions. Sometimes you can’t escape the grinding nature of offence in the NHL.
The good news is that even at his stature, Suzuki has already developed a solid base of puck-protection mechanics that should serve him well as he grows stronger. In puck battles, he gets lower on his skates, extends his knee in front of the opponent to get inside positioning, and even tries to plant his skates and initiate contact against back pressure. The puck escaped him at times, but it would be unreasonable to ask him to win scrums against defenders with a few inches on him at his age and experience. His instinct, balance, and body awareness remain encouraging signs for his development.
Suzuki’s shot also made some noise in the Bell Centre. The forward found a shot from the slot off of a pass from Jordan Weal in the second period. Suzuki’s famous dragged release forced a great save out of Samuel Montembeault in overtime.
On the second-period shot, he beat a defensive stick trying to close off the shooting lane with one swift motion; he extended his reach to catch a pass that came behind him, and lifted the puck on net.
It wasn’t a perfect showing from the prospect, but he got better as the game went on, which mirrors the way his training camp has gone. As he looks to be finding his footing, he will have to continue showing he belongs with the big club against the more complete NHL alignments he’ll face in the next couple of games.