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2019 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: #5 Nick Suzuki

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After Suzuki’s first season in the organization, he makes his debut inside the top 5.

Ottawa 67’s v Guelph Storm - Game Four Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Around this time last year, the Montreal Canadiens sent their captain away. In exchange, they got the hope of developing a new scorer, possibly even a scoring centreman, in Nick Suzuki. It put some pressure on the forward, as Suzuki certainly wanted to show himself worthy of the team’s trust in him with a strong season in the OHL.

Birthplace: London, Ontario, Canada
Date of birth: August 10, 1999
Drafted: 2017 (13th overall by Vegas Golden Knights)
Shoots: Right
Position: Centre
Height: 5’11”
Weight: 183 lbs.
Team: Laval Rocket (AHL)/Montreal Canadiens (NHL)

He achieved just that. The Junior star captured the imagination with a dominant playoff performance, carrying the Guelph Storm to an OHL championship and earned them a ticket to the Memorial Cup. It was a final, resounding note to an impressive Junior career. He set out to end his time there in a satisfying way, and showed a relentless drive in making it happen for his teammates and himself.

The prospect stands out from his Habs fellows with his style of play. At the top of his game, he doesn’t turn into an unstoppable train that rams opponents through the boards, and he is not one to dodge all opposing sticks on his way to the net — at least not very often. There is some of this and some of that in his play, but Suzuki has more of a cold, calculating nature on the ice.

EliteProspects

He pushed his team to come-from-behind victories multiple times in the playoffs. By playing with energy, yes, but mostly by identifying opportunities and unleashing his skill at the right time, repeating the process again and again until it brought success.

Voting

I made it known multiple times in the Catching The Torch series last season how much I believe in Suzuki’s ability to translate his game to the NHL. My ranking reflects that belief. With the improvements to his skating (more on this later), experience of pro hockey should be the only stepping stone needed for Suzuki to become an impact forward at the NHL level.

Justin: Suzuki had nothing left to prove on an individual level in Junior hockey last season. Had the rules allowed for it, he should have spent 2018-19 in the AHL, where he would have faced an actual challenge to bring about the next step in his development. Already knowing the next move before his opponents had figured out the one in front of them, he looked bored at times, ramping up his engagement and intensity only when it was required, reaching his peak in post-season elimination games.

With no one to match his abilities upon his move to Guelph, he took on more of a playmaking role than he had been used to because that’s what the situation called for (I recall David getting upset more than a few times in our internal chat because Isaac Ratcliffe refused to ever pass the puck). Suzuki’s shot — cited by OHL coaches as one of the very best in the league — was put in his back pocket as he adapted to his new situation.

He may face faster players, stronger defenders, and systems with more disciplined positioning, but he’s not going to get outsmarted at any level. Suzuki has one of the top toolkits in the entire organization, one that won’t be neutralized in the NHL, and therefore I place him close to the very top of my list.

Top 25 Under 25 History

This is the first year for Suzuki in our series. However, he was ranked the second-best skater in the Vegas Golden Knights organization last summer by sister site Knights On Ice.

History of #5

Year #5
Year #5
2018 Charles Hudon
2017 Charles Hudon
2016 Artturi Lehkonen
2015 Charles Hudon
2014 Michaël Bournival
2013 Brendan Gallagher
2012 Nathan Beaulieu
2011 Nathan Beaulieu
2010 Louis Leblanc

Strengths/Weaknesses

To better illustrate Suzuki’s abilities, it’s probably best to combine these two sections, as some of the forward’s talents have also led to criticism through the years.

Junior hockey is obviously different than the NHL. There is a lot more open space, more races to loose pucks, and defences are often a lot more permissive. Teammates also don’t react as quickly to the abrupt changes in the game and generally don’t support the play as well.

Suzuki, especially in the early years of his Junior career, didn’t really force defenders on their heels with blazing speed, or fly past them to score. He was probably always a better skater than given credit for, but rarely did Suzuki go all out to show the full extent of his physical ability. He instead attacked open spaces, challenged defenders with his high-level handling ability, and, sometimes slowed down the play to do so. He still moved the opponents out of position to create great scoring chances, but did so methodically and through the usage of his teammates.

Pace on the individual player level reflects the ability to play quick; to make decisions under pressure in an instant. It’s not a measure of physical ability. Speed is often listed as the main weakness in the forward’s game, but there is hardly a prospect in the Habs’ pool with an ability to process player movements and react faster to it than Suzuki. The high-energy game at the professional level might take some getting used to for Suzuki — like many other prospects of his calibre — but there should be no concern about his ability to make plays at speed.

His skating work with skill coach Dwayne Blais, and the past season with Barbara Underhill, will certainly help the forward keep up. Suzuki already raced up and down the ice with a little more ease last season, especially toward its conclusion.

As mentioned, it’s likely that his speed was always a bit hidden in his style of game, and Suzuki’s “newfound” top gear is as much a product of his conscious decision to up his tempo as putting his training into practice. Showing the ability to dominate by creating a speed difference with defenders, however, certainly was allayed some concerned about his ability to thrive in the pro ranks. Better mobility can only help him unleash his impressive skills even further against professionals.

Let’s run through those skills one more time. Suzuki’s handling, shot, and playmaking abilities all feed off each other. He uses reactive, deceptive, and baiting moves against defenders to create shooting or passing lanes, then quickly assesses the best option and executes it with precision.

In the sequence below, he drags a defender outside the dots off the rush, avoids a pokecheck, gains the middle of the ice, becoming a shooting threat, then slides the puck over to Isaac Ratcliffe for the goal.

Nick Suzuki wears #9 with the Guelph Storm and #37 with the Owen Sound Attack.

There are better shooters out there, ones who combine more power and quickness in their release, and there are also better playmakers who are more agile and deceptive skaters (most of those players are in the NHL). Suzuki doesn’t rely exclusively on either of those aspects. His diversity is his main strength; he is proficient as both a shooter and playmaker, and the combination of both should help him remain a consistent offensive threat every night.

Suzuki is not weak along the boards by any means, but stronger balance through equal work in the gym and on skating form should help him continue to be a dangerous multi-threat forward, even as he starts playing against stronger and faster opponents.

Watch Suzuki change the angle of his release in the clips above by dragging the puck closer to his body and changing the openness of his blade at the last second. He also uses defenders as screen to mask his shot.

Projection

There are no sure things when it comes to NHL prospects, but there a few in whom it’s appropriate to put your faith. Suzuki isn’t a perfect player, but his complete package and mind for the game are too enticing to not have high hopes for his career.

Will he play a top-six centre role, or is he going to settle on the wing? I think Suzuki will ultimately be a winger in the NHL. He can play in the middle, but there are better candidates than him in the prospect pool right now to fill a pivot role: Ryan Poehling and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Suzuki could just as well help his centre with the heavy load of defensive responsibilities. He knows how to shoulder them. He has shown a knack for disrupting opposing plays, through taking good pressure angles and anticipating passes over and over again in the OHL.

He is a good example of a new type of forward coming through the ranks. As high-level hockey evolves more and more to fluid positioning, he should become a versatile asset for the coaching staff as his play matures against professionals.