Montreal Canadiens general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin decided Habs fans needed some good news before the season begins, as he signed Nick Suzuki to an eight-year, $63 million extension.
The 22-year-old center was acquired via trade from the Vegas Golden Knights in a package deal in return for former Canadiens’ captain Max Pacioretty. Suzuki was the centerpiece of a deal that also brought in Tomas Tatar and a pick that eventually became defensive prospect Mattias Norlinder.
This contract ensures that Suzuki remains with the Canadiens for the duration of his prime years. This gives fans a top talent to cheer on and provides Montreal the top-line center they have been looking for since Vincent Damphousse was last on Montreal’s roster.
New NHL Cap Management
In the past, NHL free agents toiled for years, developing their games and building their reputations before they were able to get an opportunity to earn their big-money deals. But this method was GMs paying for past performances for players that were just nearing the end of their prime years or had just passed them.
Now, under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, as players become stars in the league at a much younger age, GMs have been paying out on contracts to their youth. This has meant a shift to paying on potential and investing in the hopes that their young stars who are signed can grow to prove worthy of the deal. Also, ideally, that they can become far more productive than expected, making the long-term contract signed seem like a bargain, especially as teams hope the NHL’s salary cap continues to rise, allowing them more space to add complementary players to help their newly signed stars.
This seems to be the case with Suzuki’s contract. To see if it is reasonable, we would need to look at other top-line two-way centers close to his age that have signed new contracts recently. Luckily for Suzuki, there were some comparable for his agents to use in getting him a long-term contract.
Suzuki Comparable Contracts
Using recent contract signings, age and playing styles, there are two comparables that would justify the term and cap hit Suzuki was able to command.
The first comparable is New Jersey Devils center Nico Hischier, who was drafted first overall in the 2017 Draft, the same draft as Suzuki, who was selected 13th. Despite a setback this past season due to some injuries, Hischier has established himself as a top-line center for the rebuilding Devils. This has earned him a seven-year, $7.25 million per season deal, which was 8.9 percent of the team’s cap at the time of signature. While their style of play isn’t identical, they do both play a two-way game, and both have established themselves as top-line centers by the age of 22.
Another comparable player is Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier. With his size advantage — 6-foot-4 inches and 214 pounds — he can play a more physical brand of hockey while providing a two-way game that was worthy of a Selke Trophy in 2019. This earned him an eight-year, $7.75 million per season deal, which was 9.39 percent of the team’s cap at the time of signature. The Flyers’ center had 41 points last season, the same as Suzuki, but he did so in fewer games played while being relied upon heavily as the team’s top defensive center, while Suzuki relied on Phillip Danault to share the defensive burden.
Suzuki plays a slightly different style, as he lacks that physical edge Couturier brings. The outcome: a top-line, two-way center that provides offence but also can play a shutdown role against top lines, which is what the Canadiens and their fans expect from Suzuki.
Suzuki Is the Canadiens’ Future
The expectation this season is to see Suzuki lining up with Calder Trophy hopeful Cole Caufield. The chemistry these two provided in the 2021 playoffs helped lead the Habs into the Stanley Cup Final, and the fanbase is hoping for that magic to continue in the upcoming 2021-22 NHL season.
Suzuki’s strengths are his maturity and hockey sense. He doesn’t impress fans with a blistering shot or elite speed. His style is cerebral, much like his hockey idol, Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron. He will use positioning and his ability to read a play to break it up defensively. He then uses his linemates effectively to allow himself to find the gaps in coverage, then read the play that develops, allowing him to create the opportunity he had planned for, much like a chess player setting his pieces up for a move.
This maturity will also be necessary playing in a market like Montreal. The media and fan base are very demanding, and this can become overwhelming, as we have seen recently with Jonathan Drouin and Carey Price. The hope is that with the leadership still in the room and the experience these players have had that they can mentor Suzuki and allow him to grow as an individual as well as a hockey player.
Having a young, impactful center who is still growing into his prime years signed long-term helps the Canadiens to set their cap structure for the next decade. Having his deal take up 9.7 percent of the total cap next season (when the deal takes effect) is reasonable. It can also become a bargain if the NHL’s salary cap rises over the life of the contract, something that is possible with the new ESPN television deal in the USA.
After decades of searching, the Canadiens have finally found their top-line center. This contract solidifies Suzuki as the cornerstone of the forward corps. It is also a win for both the player and the general manager, who, in the last year of his contract, may have been able to ensure a central core player is signed long term to allow his replacement to build around to eventually build this franchise back into a Stanley Cup contending team.