Trading Max Pacioretty was always going to be a risky proposition for the Montreal Canadiens. Generally speaking, it will always be risky to trade an established, perennial 30-goal threat, since there is no guarantee that you’re going to get that type of production coming back the other way.
He may not be a 30-goal threat himself just yet, but Nick Suzuki alone looks good enough overall to justify Marc Bergevin’s decision to trade the former captain.
Coming into his first professional season, the expectation was that he’d probably get some time in Laval. Dominant in Junior, he needed a step up in competition, but there was legitimate concern that he wouldn’t necessarily be able to do the things he does so well against the best players in the world. There was also the question of whether he’d come to the big club as a winger, or at his natural centre position.
That time in Laval never came, as after a strong pre-season, he made the big club immediately. Once there, he stated his claim to a roster spot — at centre, no less — and in the team’s top six. The Canadiens had a rather disappointing season, but Suzuki’s 41 points and constant improvement over the course of their 71 games provided a very welcome silver lining.
After COVID-19 derailed the NHL schedule, giving Montreal some unexpected post-season action, we got our first look at playoff Suzuki. His regular season was encouraging, but his playoff performance solidified the fact that he is a legitimate top-six forward. He finished tied with Jonathan Drouin for the team lead at seven points, and with Jesperi Kotkaniemi at four goals. It’s fair to say that Suzuki at this point might not just be the best Habs player under 25, he might be the best skater on the roster, period.
As close to unanimous as you can get without achieving it, the lone dissenting vote wasn’t far off, ranking him third in the system.
It stands to reason that this number one spot will belong to Suzuki until and unless he is usurped by Kotkaniemi, Cole Caufield, or Alexander Romanov. Since all of these players are a few years away from graduating, it should mean some fun years of debate ahead.
Top 25 Under 25 history
Suzuki hasn’t been with the organization for very long, so last year was his first crack at the list, and he debuted at number five. He quickly stole the top spot with his strong first season, and we’ll see if he can hold this ranking with a strong sophomore season.
History of #1
What we’ve seen so far is the beginnings of an elite NHL playmaker. With hockey IQ well beyond his years, Suzuki excels at creating scoring opportunities for his teammates. He is developing a scoring touch as well, as evidenced throughout the year and particularly in the playoffs, but his main game is setting up his linemates.
His vision is off the charts. On a regular basis, he can stare defenders out of position only to slide a no-look pass to a teammate for an easy scoring chance. He can complete riskier plays through traffic, but more often than not he uses his puck-handling and skating to move defenders out of position in order to exploit open passing lanes.
He is a solid skater, and an above-average shooter, but these skills don’t stand out as elite in the NHL. What sets Suzuki apart from his peers is intelligence. Few players can process the game and react as quickly as he can. Here is a quick example from the playoffs:
He sees Brian Dumoulin turned around at the defensive blue line, steals the puck easily, and his acceleration creates quick separation. He has a two-on-one with Joel Armia, and normally the pass-first Suzuki would be looking to his linemate, but he sees that Matt Murray is outside of the blue paint, so he sneaks one just over the shoulder for a highlight-reel goal.
It’s not a shot with wow-factor velocity, but it’s a very accurate and intelligently placed shot. Murray was a bit far out, but didn’t have bad positioning on the play. Suzuki exploited it nonetheless. It was noticeable throughout the year that Suzuki was gaining more and more shooting confidence, and his four playoff goals were the culmination of that.
With his unquestionable playmaking skills, if he can keep that shooting confidence going, he could be poised for a breakout year in 2021.
There is not much to speak of in terms of weaknesses in his game. Size is sometimes brought up — oddly enough considering he’s not a short person at 5’11” — and though he is decidedly not the strongest player on the roster, it hasn’t hampered his development at all.
It should also be noted that the Canadiens site currently has him listed at 201 pounds, which is nearly 20 pounds heavier than he was heading into last season. If that is an accurate figure, he’s obviously been doing work in the gym to help compete more on the physical side with the men of the NHL.
Defensively, he can be prone to the occasional lapse in awareness. His positioning is generally very good, but this is likely just him getting used to the speed of the professional game. Other than some fine-tuning to the defensive aspects of his game, he’s about as complete a player as you can ask a 21-year-old to be.
Since he has already proven himself ready for top-six minutes, this section is likely better used to explore prospective linemates and usage. Of particular interest to this organization should be the chemistry he showed with Jonathan Drouin. They played incredibly well together in the playoffs, so it seems blatantly obvious that they need to further explore that partnership in 2021.
An interesting idea that has been floated is to have Suzuki with Drouin and newcomer Josh Anderson. Anderson would give them a little more size, a little more net presence, and if the chemistry between Suzuki and Drouin continues, this could be a very dangerous trio.
If Phillip Danault is still to be the de facto number-one centre due to his chemistry with Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, this makes Suzuki the pivot for the second trio, and allows them to run a line with Kotkaniemi as the third. The centre depth that Montreal has now is better than any roster in recent memory, and has few equals in the NHL.
It should go without saying that the team’s first power-play unit should be run through Suzuki, and on that I’d like to again see him with Drouin, but perhaps try Brendan Gallagher on the other wing. The man advantage has been an issue throughout Claude Julien’s tenure, so it will be important for him to figure out a combination that works, and stick with it. Hopefully with a more polished Suzuki as a focal point, this will be an easier task than it has ever been for him.
And so concludes our countdown of the 2020 Top 25 Under 25. With a young group at the top of our list, expect to see us checking in on these names every year for the next few years.
Our guest for the last podcast is non other than the prodigal son, our former boss, and the best off season signing by the Montreal Canadiens in recent history - Marc Dumont. He joins us to discuss the list in general, and Nick Suzuki in particular.