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Micro Analysis: Nick Suzuki’s speed, Jake Evans’s truculence

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The rookies are finding ways to be effective, while Max Domi is still searching for his spark.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The biggest knock on Nick Suzuki in his draft year was his skating. He didn’t play with a ton of pace, and some observers doubted he ever could raise the tempo of his game and adapt to the top levels of hockey because he lacked some of the necessary tools: speed and quickness.

I don’t think the doubts expressed were wrong, but maybe overstated. Suzuki was smart, and he continuously found ways around his lack of dominant skating ability. Three years later in the NHL, he is still doing it.

Of course, Suzuki is far from slow. By improving his strength and working on changing his skating form a bit, he looks like an average NHL skater now. He wins his share of races and can rush the puck up the ice without backcheckers catching him. But he can’t blow wide of defenders or place them on their heels with unexpected acceleration. Those abilities are reserved for the speedy elite of the league.

Yet the Habs centreman still finds ways to replicate the advantages of dominant skaters. Because, once again, he is just that smart.

On Jordan Weal’s goal, Suzuki approached a defencemen in the wide lane of the offensive zone. That defenceman had his counter in mind; he matched the speed of the forward and prepared himself to pivot and angle him to the boards, closing the available space. Instead, he found himself giving up the passing lane to the front of the net.

What happened?

When he got to within about a stick’s length of the defender — the moment that defender started his pivot — Suzuki opened his skates in a puck-protection stance and brought the puck wide. From that position, he became a threat to dangle, shoot, or pass across. The defender immediately reacted by pulling his stick back close to his body in a blocking position; that little movement created enough space for Suzuki to step past the opponent and reach Weal rushing the net.

You can also see Suzuki lift his head and hold his pass an extra half-second to wait for Weal to reach the blue paint. If he had immediately sent the puck cross-ice upon beating the defender, the pass would have flown in front of his teammate.

When we talk about the Habs needing game-breaking ability, Suzuki has shown he has it. He can make plays happen in situations where another player would lose the puck in the corner or send the puck blindly to a dangerous area. Hopefully he continues to find more and more ways to use his skill inside the game.

Jake Evans’s net-drive

The other way to score when you don’t possess a special skill set is to execute the offensive game plan perfectly — like Jake Evans did on the next goal.

Nick Cousins got all the space in the world on that play. He moved inside the offensive zone from the wide lane, then was allowed to descend inside the faceoff circle and continued on all the way to the dot to pick his spot on Ben Bishop.

He took a great shot to beat the goalie, but more than anything he owes Evans dinner for his ninth goal of the season.

The rookie took hard strides from the defensive zone all the way to the slot. He skated right into the middle of the two opposing defenceman to move ahead of the play, forcing the defensive line to respect and cover him. If they didn’t, he would have become a tap-in option for Cousins.

But Evans also went the extra mile. He didn’t let the defender closest to the eventual goal-scorer make a choice on his coverage; he made that choice for him by taking the opponent’s stick away. The pick allowed his winger to take an extra step toward the net, and those few extra inches were the difference between Bishop saving the shot and seeing it fly above his shoulder.

Evans continued the same pattern throughout the night. His line is rushing to the offensive zone? Better skate to the net. The puck moves to the point? Better skate to the net. A teammate gets the puck on the boards? ... Well, you get it

Moving to the net-front is not always the best offensive answer, but for a rookie in his first few steps in the league, it’s the right call. Evans will build more of a timing or feel-based game as he grows more comfortable.

Max Domi simplifying his game

Go back to basics and goals will come.

I generally don’t like that saying because it’s the advice systematically given to every struggling player ever. But I have to admit that when it comes to Max Domi, it holds some truth. In fact, he could take some examples from Evans.

The offensive system of the Habs is simple: the puck moves the point, it’s fired back down to the net. Players have to be there to capitalize on rebounds. One usually stands higher than the other to front the defence and try for a tip. It’s not the most sexy formula, but it works with enough regularity if the players do their jobs right.

Domi doesn’t maximize his chance of scoring in the video above. He sees the puck circle up to Jeff Petry, and knows his defenceman won’t have the space to attempt an elaborate play. He also knows what will come next: a point shot. Petry fires. Lehkonen moves inside the shooting lane for a tip. The puck deflects to the right side of the net, and ... slides untouched in front of the cage to the corner.

Had Domi skated to the net, he would have had the inside lane on his coverage and been in prime position for a deflection. He instead decided to circle the cage and come out the other way, looking for a pass in open space — a pass he had no chance of getting.

Domi assisted on the first goal of the game. He got a much needed point after being left off the scoresheet in recent games. But he still looks lost on the ice.

Shifts like the one below are not something to be proud of. Yes, he generates a scoring chance through his skill, one not many other players on the Habs could pull off, but he also gives up on a race to a loose puck completely, mindlessly glides, and forces plays.

It’s extremely likely that Domi looks back on this season, and especially this recent stretch of games, as the low point in his career. This isn’t the player he wants to be — isn’t the player he was in his first year in Montreal — and he can bounce back.

Domi has shown that he can be a high-pressure, slightly gritty playmaker who can pull off the occasional rush-release like the one above. It’s how he was playing for good parts of last season. He is still young and still learning, and it’s too early for the Habs to give up on a potential impact player in a major slump.

It takes some players more time than others to get it, to understand the little details that make you a positive player and lead to success in the long run. Things like intensity on the forecheck, staying above the puck, spacing from teammates away from it, going to the net, and even playing a simple, effective, predictable game.

Overall, this season could prove to be a great lesson for Domi.