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What will happen when Nick Suzuki’s hot streak ends?

Could the supposedly inevitable crash be much gentler than anticipated?

Vancouver Canucks v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

With all due respect to Jake Allen and Samuel Montembeault, it’s hard to argue against the notion that Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield are the biggest drivers of the Montreal Canadiens’ early-season success. Going into Saturday, Suzuki and Caufield have 17 and 15 points, respectively. New linemate Kirby Dach has 12, and then the next highest is Mike Hoffman ... with five. Suzuki and Caufield’s nine and eight goals more than double Dach and Hoffman’s four. Given this, it’s hardly surprising that the duo are head coach Martin St-Louis’s most-used forwards.

The sheer magnitude of Suzuki and Caufield’s success has people wondering about sustainability, with Suzuki drawing the bulk of the suspicion. To be fair, this isn’t that surprising. Suzuki is the one currently shooting ~14% over his career average. His 1.21 points per game this season far dwarfs his 2019-22 totals (0.68). Most importantly, Suzuki is the one with the big (some would say too big) contract.

The problem is that while there are many voices hollering “regression” into the wind, there are relatively few offering their suggestions on what regression actually means. Should Suzuki’s current baseline be based on his rookie and sophomore seasons? The disastrous third season featuring two diametrically opposed coaching philosophies? Or these most recent 14 games?

To start answering this question, we need to first look at Suzuki’s career trajectory. Grouping Suzuki’s career into three bins based on head coach, there is a clear separation between the now-captain’s numbers under Claude Julien and Dominique Ducharme versus his numbers under St-Louis. Suzuki’s point totals skyrocket, fueled by a shooting percentage that already jumped four percent last season after the coaching change. However, everything else — shot attempts, shots on goal, scoring-chance generation, and expected goals — stays roughly static.

If this was a 10- or 20-game sample, it would be easy to write it off as noise. But Suzuki has now played almost 800 minutes for his current bench boss, and may surpass the 1200 minutes spent with Ducharme by the end of the year.

So what gives?

One possibility is that Suzuki is experiencing a prolonged period of good fortune. This is certainly not unheard of. There are numerous examples of players like Jonathan Cheechoo and David Clarkson who were the beneficiaries of a season-long anomaly. However, in these cases, the impetus for elevated production is usually obvious. Cheechoo had Joe Thornton, Clarkson scored most of his goals on the power play, and so on. Suzuki doesn’t have such an obvious tell. His boost manifests in both goals and assists, so it’s disingenuous to say that he’s riding on Caufield’s coattails.

Another possibility is that Suzuki is benefiting from the coaching change more than his less-productive teammates. This is certainly worth exploring. St-Louis’s more aggressive and offence-geared philosophy definitely plays to Suzuki’s strengths more than the defence-first beliefs of his predecessors. At the same time, Suzuki is not generating any more production when it comes to volume (his unchanged expected goals even suggests that he’s not getting better looks), so there is no overt flashing neon light that can serve as a link between St-Louis’s tactics and Suzuki’s offence.

The third possibility is Suzuki is doing something that publicly available metrics are having difficulty picking up. There are two parameters that people tend to point to when it comes to sustainability: shooting percentage (both individual and on-ice) and individual expected goals (ixG). People generally accept that individual players will have different baseline shooting percentages, but ixG is still regarded as somewhat of a monolith: if a player has 40 ixG and scores only 30 actual goals, they’re said to be unlucky. If the inverse is true, they’re said to be lucky.

However, stars and superstars routinely outperform ixG. For example, Auston Matthews scored 38 goals at five-on-five last year in 73 games, which amounts to 42.7 goals over 82 games. His ixG was only 24.65 in 73, which translates to 27.7 in 82 — an outperformance of 15 full goals. This feat was done with an elite but not otherworldly 15.6%, meaning that it doesn’t take abnormal shooting luck or an Alexander Ovechkin-esque generational shot to accomplish the feat.

In fact, of the 172 player seasons to have achieved a 20-goal pace at five-on-five since 2019, only three scored fewer actual goals than expected. This statistic not only demonstrates how frequently players outperform ixG, but also how difficult it is to reach that 20-goal threshold without outperforming ixG. Moreover, the ability to score more than the metrics say a player should may be a way to identify elite goal-scorers. Among the aforementioned 172 player seasons, six surpassed a 30-goal-pace. All six outperformed their respective ixG by more than 10 goals.

Cole Caufield, by the way, ticks all of these boxes. Last season, his 18.4 five-on-five goal pace over 82 games exceeded his 14.2 ixG/82, and if we only look at Caufield’s record under St-Louis, those numbers jump to 31.0 actual goals per 82 games and 16.8 ixG — a monstrous 14.2 goal outperformance — achieved with a high but not abnormal 17.7% shooting percentage.

As an aside, we also see a similar trend when it comes to on-ice shooting percentage. Unsurprisingly, elite goal-scorers create higher values in the double digits, while once again, it is rare to be able to cross the 20 goal-pace threshold with sub-8% on-ice shooting.

What does all of this mean for Suzuki? Well, the Canadiens’ captain has yet to be able to count himself as one of the league’s elite goal-scorers, maxing out at a rate of 13.2 five-on-five goals per 82 games in 2020-21. Throughout his career, even during St-Louis’s tenure, his actual goals have roughly matched his expected goals — a statistical profile that is more Brendan Gallagher than Cole Caufield.

However, things may have started to line up for the centre. As mentioned, after St-Louis became the bench boss last year, Suzuki’s on-ice shooting percentage jumped from 5.4% to 12.6%. The presence of a resurgent Caufield certainly contributed, but Suzuki’s personal shooting percentage also jumped into the double digits, showing that he was far from a passenger on the Cole train. Furthermore, that 12.6% value is not too far from Suzuki’s current on-ice shooting percentage of 17.0%, and is a far cry from the sub-8% values that he experienced with Julien and Ducharme.

So we circle back to the question: what sort of regression should we expect from Suzuki, who is currently on a 29.3-goal pace at five-on-five over 82 games? At this point, there should be an expectation that Suzuki’s baseline is a double-digit shooting percentage, similar to the 11.1% that he recorded last year under St-Louis. The worst case scenario would be a 7 to 8% shooting percentage, similar to his statistics under Julien and Ducharme, while the best case scenario would see Suzuki come close to Caufield’s shooting percentage — which would be roughly in the mid-teens — over the remainder of the season.

If Suzuki ultimately matches his career high of 110 shots on goal, that would translate into a reasonable potential range of possibilities between a high of approximately 18 and a low of 12 goals at five-on-five for the season — a career best even in the worst case scenario. Combine that with an actually productive power play and Caufield (and possibly even Dach) having career years without any abnormal metrics that may indicate a full-on crash, and maybe the real question surrounding Suzuki should be this: 70, 80, or 90 points?