In the Max Pacioretty deal, Montreal’s management made a bet on future. It is hard to recoup the loss of a prolific goal-scorer, but by aiming young in their trade target and getting multiple assets, it is quite possible that the Habs will gain a lot of benefits from the move in a few years’ time.
In his press conference at the annual golf tournament, Marc Bergevin called Nick Suzuki an ‘‘A’’ prospect. That he is. He was drafted 13th overall last year by the Vegas Golden Knights, using their second first-round pick of the draft. The Habs also had him in high esteem, placing him 11th on their 2017 list.
Suzuki, also a high OHL draft pick, has been dominating the Junior league in the past two years with the Owen Sound Attack with one campaign of 96 points followed by another of 100.
There is only a four-point difference between those two seasons, but recording a triple-digit point total in 2017-18 is impressive, especially doing it on a team where the next-closest teammate had only 69. The Owen Sound attack lost some of their top players last year, either to other organizations or to injuries, and relied a lot on Suzuki to drive their attack; something he showed that he was more than capable of doing.
Suzuki showed night after night this past season that he was on another level compared to both opponents and teammates alike. He has an incredible set of offensive tools that allow him to dominate on the ice.
Each video presented features added analysis.
The first tools are his great hands. He is a very shifty stick-handler who can fit the puck into very narrow holes inside the opposing defence.
Suzuki is a patient handler who likes to have others make the first move. He can bait opponents by wittingly placing the puck within pokecheck distance only to slide it away at the last second, forcing defenders to lunge and give him room to move the puck around or through them. Even in tight spaces and under pressure, Suzuki finds ways to come out of the scrums with possession, creatively using the boards or his teammates for give-and-go plays.
The concept of space creation is at the centre of Suzuki’s play. While he doesn’t have the greatest feet (more on this later) his stickhandling and his ability to misdirect opponents allows him to gain the room necessary to execute his plays, get scoring chances, or open up passing lanes to feed the puck to his teammates in scoring areas.
His hands, added to his great vision and mind for the game, makes him a dangerous playmaker.
For this reason, the half-wall is the position of choice on the power play for Suzuki. He roams around the top of the circles waiting for a pass. As soon as he gets it, he takes a few stride forward, knowing his options and the play he will make.
Suzuki has a few tricks up his sleeve to reach his teammates inside the defensive formation. He can slide the puck inside the box for a one-timer by freezing the defence with a stick move or by opening up and faking a shot, always looking off his intended target as to not give-away his intentions. He is also a proficient passer with either his backhand or forehand, able to execute saucer feeds above a few sticks with either technique.
Take a look at this half-wall play from a pre-season game with the Golden Knights last year. It’s not a perfect sequence by any means, but encapsulate some of the aforementioned skills against opponents that are closer to NHL-level.
First, Suzuki doesn’t race to catch the puck, but lets it come to him as it bounces off the boards. The play in that situation is often a drop-pass to the defender, which #13 of the Canucks expects. Suzuki plays on this and turns in a way that suggests he will attempt such a play, but instead strides forward while the Vancouver player overshoots him.
Suzuki skates to the circle having gained a step on the defender without needing a great acceleration. Unfortunately, he loses an edge and has to slide the puck to his defenceman in support.
It is immediately given back to him. He once again turns to protect it with his forehand along the wall, and after advancing a few steps manages a hook-pass under the opponent’s stick; one of his preferred feeds. The puck gets back to the blue line for a point shot and a goal.
Suzuki has now had seasons of 45 and 42 goals. He is a great playmaker, but has no problem putting the puck in the net himself or being the triggerman. He is precise in his release and can fire the puck quite hard to beat goalies cleanly.
What is truly impressive in Suzuki’s shot is how quickly the puck gets off his stick. It’s not just that he can skate to the net and release quickly, but more that he can score in a smooth catch-and-release motion with the puck on and off his stick in an instant after receiving a pass.
The forward has a knack for getting open in the offensive zone. Away from the puck, he sometimes circles back high, shakes his coverage, and comes back in the slot in a shooting position with his blade on the ice waiting for a pass. He keeps his hands away from his body, accepts the pass, and, in a weight transfer, shoots it back to the net before a defender can move to block the fired puck.
Suzuki can also one-time the puck quite effectively. He showed that he doesn’t need the perfect pass to get the puck on net. He can shoot while slightly off balance or even when the puck arrives a bit behind him.
For those abilities, and the way he adapts to imperfect passes in limited space, his scoring touch projects to the NHL. It’s very early to pencil him in as a perennial scorer (I think he’ll end up showing his playmaking side more) but he shouldn’t have too much problem putting the puck in the net when in good position to do so.
The biggest weakness for Suzuki is probably his skating ability. This is what, despite the great offensive tools he has, might make the transition to the next level harder as he has to keep up with the increasingly faster pace of the top league in the world.
Is Suzuki a bad skater? No. But the concerns are not completely overblown either. Right now, in my opinion, he would likely lag slightly behind an average NHL skater.
From a form perspective, he tends to not bend his knees enough and skates a bit wide, which makes for a shorter stride. In other words, he doesn’t recover his feet completely under his body after a push and doesn’t get full power out of those.
That being said, there are reasons to remain very optimistic. Suzuki is aware of the issue. As he said on the (great) Behind the Gear podcast, he has worked with a skating coach to correct it and has improved this aspect of his game since his draft year, especially his acceleration which is arguably the most important element.
With the usage of plenty of crossovers as he rushes from zone to zone, Suzuki can up his momentum and stay ahead of defenders as he joins the rush and even gain on some of them.
Not unlike what we see from Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Suzuki’s great hands and anticipation also help him compensate for his feet. He controls the pace of the game with the puck on his stick and keeps defenders at bay. While others only match the play of their opponents and teammates, Suzuki can often remain a step ahead and in a good position.
The other knock on Suzuki is his size. However, just because a player is 5’11” doesn’t mean he will always struggle physically.
Protecting the puck against NHL defenders requires a lot of strength and tenacity. The newest prospect might not be on that level right now, but there are elements in his Junior play that point to him not being pushed around as he develops.
Suzuki is able to use his body and his stick to his advantage to keep possession under pressure, keeping the puck away from opponents.
Watch in the clips below how he attacks the net from the outside lane, presenting his back to opposing defencemen, leaning on them while extending his knee to shield the puck and using the outside edge of his skate to drive to the middle. This way, he resists the force the defenceman is applying and translates that energy into more forward momentum.
At the same time, Suzuki is able to switch from two to one hand on his stick to keep the puck in an area that won’t be reached by opposing sticks. All the while he’s still looking for passing options or holes in the goaltender’s coverage of the net.
Suzuki’s puck-protection skills should be another tool that will help him keep possession for extended periods of time in the offensive zone, even if he doesn’t possess the escapability of smaller forwards.
Centre or winger?
Let’s just say that this is not the first time this question has been asked about a Montreal Canadiens prospect or player.
In the case of Suzuki, there have been many reports that he has played mostly on the wing in the past couple of years. I think the truth is more complicated than that with Owen Sound.
Kevin Hancock and Nick Suzuki alternated ‘‘centre’’ duties on the first line this season, depending on handedness, the side of the ice, and probably the players’ choice of who was on the dot. The other consideration is that the Attack used the popular approach of having the first player in the defensive zone on the backcheck be the F1 (typically the designation of a centre). It was then hard to know who was the true centre on that line.
But one thing is for sure: Suzuki was exposed to the role of a centreman a lot with Owen Sound no matter the position he started his shift in.
He took 673 faceoffs in 2017-18 and won 52.6 % of them, and did a respectable job as F1 in the defensive zone. In the games I’ve watched, he seemed to fill a centre’s defensive duties more than Hancock, but that may be a sample-size effect.
Suzuki is an intelligent player who recognizes his role in defensive situations well. Like many Junior prospects, he can sometimes get mesmerized by the movement of the puck in his own zone, but generally he won’t leave his position to over-commit on a player and can take away passing lanes. His anticipation serves him well to swoop in to battle along the boards, take a loose puck, and get it the other way.
Outside of his Junior career, It seems like Suzuki wants to play the pivot position, looking to Patrice Bergeron as a model for his career. He is obviously far from that, but I think Suzuki remains a centre prospect first and foremost. We will see how he develops, but right now, he fully possesses the ability to play in the middle and will only get more comfortable with more minutes.
Where does he rank in the Habs prospect pool?
Our Top 25 Under 25 countdown just ended, with Suzuki unfortunately not being around to be featured in the rankings. However, if I were to place him somewhere on my list, he would be second to only Kotkaniemi among the junior-aged prospects.
I think Suzuki has more offensive tools than Ryan Poehling and has a better chance of becoming an offensively impactful forward playing in the top six of an NHL team, even if the latter is a better two-way player and a more sure-fire centre at the top level.
Compared to Kotkaniemi, while Suzuki has some of the same great offensive tools and weaknesses, I think Kotkaniemi shows glimpses of playmaking and handling abilities that are beyond what the huge majority of other prospects are capable of.
What is really interesting is that both Suzuki and Kotkaniemi are relatively late birthdays, being born in August and July, respectively. This means that, in their hockey career until now, they have mostly been facing opponents older than them, and performing at a high level. Prospects with late birthdays are often less finished products, and coincidentally have more room to grow than others.
This speaks to their potential, but also brings the question of where Suzuki will play next year. He is still a relatively young player who can’t count on explosive skating to help him keep up with the pace of the NHL.
Again, there is a similarity with Kotkaniemi there as both players rely on their feel for the game to both create and defend on the ice. It might take some time to get in tune with the NHL game.
But with the Habs’ lineup in need of an injection of talent, Suzuki will probably get a long look at training camp. He had a good pre-season last year with the Golden Knights before being returned to Owen Sound, and there is no reason to expect any less of him this year. With a season more of development under his belt, he could potentially make Montreal’s lineup. If he doesn’t, then he will have to keep the right attitude going forward.
Suzuki seemed already prepared for that eventuality in the podcast interview linked above. He seems to continuously set goals for himself, and the most points in Owen Sound’s history is a record within his reach with another very productive season.
If he is back in Junior, the good news is that he will be featured weekly in Catching The Torch series, which will start up again soon.