Montreal Canadiens’ Newest Captain Ready to Face Challenge

The Montreal Canadiens always begin the season with a charity golf tournament before training camp opens. All of the players arrive in Montreal and attend the event, and traditionally, it is when big announcements are made, like in 2018, when the organization announced they had traded captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights. In return, the Canadiens acquired centerman Nick Suzuki, a top prospect with no NHL experience. Now that top prospect, who was at the center of the trade, has become the Canadiens’ newest captain.

Suzuki, 23, wore an “A” last season and recently signed an eight-year, $63 million contract extension. His new deal will take effect this coming season after a career year of 21 goals and 61 points. He was also the only player on the team to play in all 82 games in 2021-22, a sign that he rose to the challenges he faced last season. That being said, his biggest challenge lies ahead.

Naming the Canadiens’ Captain

In Montreal, there is an ongoing debate about whether to vote for a captain or for management to select one. In this case, management led by general manager (GM) Kent Hughes, selected the player they see fit for the long-term health and stability of the franchise. This was confirmed by head coach Martin St. Louis at the charity event.

“It’s not a popularity vote. We spoke with players, and we made the decision.”

-Martin St. Louis

It’s clear that Hughes wanted a player and a leader who will be with the club long-term. The timing may have been off for Brendan Gallagher to wear the “C” as he is entering his 30s and may not remain in a Canadiens uniform for the remainder of his contract, worth $6.5 million for five more seasons.

Support for the Canadiens’ New Captain

Some may have wanted Joel Edmundson or Gallagher to wear the “C” to buy Suzuki some time to be more prepared. However he was chosen for several reasons, but the fact that, at 23, he was the right age to lead the young core is likely what made him the youngest player to be named captain in franchise history.

Related: Canadiens’ Top Candidates for Captain

Suzuki has mountain-sized shoes to fill as he succeeds All-Star defenseman, Shea Weber, who wore the “C” in Montreal from 2018 to 2021 and approached the role in his way. He was quiet and reserved and was not seen much in the public eye due in part to his personality, but also to the pandemic. Some might think that Suzuki is too young for the role, but with Edmundson and Gallagher wearing an “A”, he will be supported by quality veterans.

Having a defined leadership group is a necessity for success in the NHL on and off the ice, and being the captain in Montreal comes with added pressure. They are expected to answer the hard questions when things aren’t going well. Suzuki was in the room when Weber was captain, likely learning how he integrated players into the club and created a winning atmosphere by bringing the group together.

Edmundson is a veteran who has won a Stanley Cup, has played in several NHL markets and understands what it takes to lead in the NHL. With Gallagher, Suzuki has another veteran who knows the Montreal market well, has been active in the community, and is comfortable with the media. Suzuki will have to decide what leadership principles he wants to emulate from Weber, and he will have two veterans to rely upon for support.

Challenges for Suzuki

Not all leaders wear a letter, so the support from the other veterans, such as Paul Byron, David Savard, and others will be a necessity. Their experience should help Suzuki manage expectations for the club, perhaps the hardest job of a leader.

Thankfully, after coming off of a last-place finish in 2021-22, the expectations for the Canadiens are low for the 2022-23 season. Fans are supportive of the current rebuilding process, but they will want to see growth and, of course, because they will be paying some of the highest prices at the gate, they will demand an entertaining brand of hockey.

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Being captain is more than talking to referees or performing on the ice. It’s knowing your teammates, what their needs are, and how to relate that to the coaching staff. Part of it is also managing the expectations of his teammates. Players tend to play their best when they are battling for a roster spot or a contract. Demands for entertaining hockey should be taken care of by that. But the players should set a higher standard for themselves, and that should be to earn a playoff spot.

“Rebuilding? That was last year. I think we’re ready to take the next step… Our mindset is we’re making the playoffs.”

– Joel Edmundson

Suzuki will be kept busy this season with managing his teammates, the fans, and the media as he learns to deal with the highs and lows of a season that is predicted to end without a playoff spot. Given the team’s cap issues and with several veterans on expiring contracts, Suzuki will likely also be busy dealing with player departures, welcoming newcomers, and supporting rookies. As the saying goes, “It takes a village,” and Suzuki will need the entire village to help him learn the job on the fly and a leadership style he can comfortably grow into.

At the end of the day, Suzuki was the right choice for captain. He understands the market and its unique demands. He understands the role of a captain, having worn the “C” back in his Major Junior career and from watching Weber after his arrival two seasons ago. Naming Suzuki captain will help the rebuild take another step forward. He has almost instantly become the face of the franchise, and management will continue to build around him and the young core that he represents.

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