Comparing Suzuki Captaincy to Canadiens’ Captains of the Past

In September 2022, Nick Suzuki was named captain of the Montreal Canadiens, becoming both the 31st and youngest-serving captain in franchise history. One year after the team played the entirety of the season without a player wearing the “C” following Shea Weber’s departure from the organization, Suzuki’s skills, talent, and dedication to the team were rewarded. One month later, he inked an eight-year contract with the team, cementing his role with the Canadiens for the remainder of the decade.

While his first year as captain was one he hoped could have ended better, his single-season numbers were nothing to scoff at. His 40th assist on April 8 in a loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs made Suzuki the first player on the Habs to register multiple 40-assist seasons since P.K. Subban did it between the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons. He also represented his team in back-to-back All-Star Games in 2022 and 2023 and led the Canadiens in assists (40) and points (64) this season.

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Looking back at his first season in the captain role, we weigh his successes and shortcomings with the leaders before him. The cut-off for this retrospective look is the 1996-97 season, which includes five captains who have served for at least three seasons.

Five Montreal Canadiens Captains Who Served From 1996 to 2021

Vincent Damphousse (1996-97 – 1998-99)

In 1992, the Canadiens acquired Vincent Damphousse from the Edmonton Oilers for forwards Shayne Corson and Brent Gilchrist. The former Maple Leafs’ first-round selection from 1986 would lead the Canadiens in points during the regular season with 97 and register 23 points in 20 games during Montreal’s run to their 24th Stanley Cup. During the 1996-97 season, Damphousse took the mantle from Pierre Turgeon after a trade sent him packing to the St. Louis Blues in a five-player deal.

In Damphousse’s first year as captain, he again led the team in points with 81, edging forward Mark Recchi by one point. It was the third time in five seasons that he accomplished this feat and aided the Canadiens in clinching a playoff spot in the 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately, the team was ousted in five games by the New Jersey Devils in the opening round, and Damphousse finished the run with no points and two penalty minutes.

Damphousse captained the Canadiens for two more seasons, but his production was on a downward trend. After recording just 12 goals and 36 points in 65 games during the 1998-99 season, the Canadiens traded him to the San Jose Sharks for a package of draft picks in hopes of a rebuild. The 2001 first-round selection they acquired resulted in the drafting of forward Marcel Hossa, who played a total of 237 games at the NHL level.

Saku Koivu (1999-00 – 2008-09)

With the 21st selection in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, the Canadiens selected forward Saku Koivu out of Turku, Finland. An agile skater, tenacious on the puck, and possessing a unique scoring touch, he appeared to be a safe bet to make the team. The organization knew they had a good player, but something they could not have predicted was how important he’d be to the team and the city of Montreal.

Saku Koivu
Saku Koivu (Image: French Kheldar)

Koivu played in four seasons with the Canadiens, missing time in each after his rookie campaign due to knee and leg injuries. When Damphousse departed from the club, Koivu was named the 27th captain in franchise history and the first European-born player to earn the role at just 24 years of age. Unfortunately, he played just 24 games due to a dislocated shoulder and a subsequent knee injury shortly after his return. While he recorded 21 points during his availability, the team fell short of making the playoffs.

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After overcoming several injuries and a bout with cancer, Koivu’s popularity was undeniable, turning him into a cult of personality in the city. He led the team to five trips to the playoffs and became one of the Canadiens’ most consistent performers. His exit was somewhat unceremonious as he opted to sign with the Anaheim Ducks for the 2009-10 season, leaving behind a legacy as one of the longest-serving captains in the team’s history.

Brian Gionta (2010-11 – 2013-14)

Brian Gionta arrived in Montreal as part of a shake-up to the team’s overall structure. Saying goodbye to Koivu and Alex Kovalev, he signed with the club along with Mike Cammalleri and Scott Gomez. One year after a season with no captain, Gionta earned the privilege of leading the team to glory after showcasing a valiant effort in the team’s best playoff performance in 17 years.

Brian Gionta Canadiens
Brian Gionta with the Canadiens (Icon SMI)

In year two of his five-year contract, Gionta captained the team to a second playoff berth in as many years. This time, the team lost to the Bruins in the first round in seven games, bringing the Habs’ hopes of repeating their success from a year ago to a thud. He led the Canadiens to two more trips to the postseason, including a second trip to the Eastern Conference Final, before signing elsewhere in the offseason.

Gionta appeared in four more seasons, three with the Buffalo Sabres and one with the Boston Bruins, before announcing his retirement in 2018.

Max Pacioretty (2015-16 – 2017-18)

When the Canadiens traded Craig Rivet to the San Jose Sharks in 2007, they acquired defenseman Josh Gorges and a second round pick, which turned out to be Max Pacioretty. The 6-foot-2 American winger possessed a natural scoring touch but took time to develop into a sturdy power forward.

Max Pacioretty, seen here with the Montreal Canadiens (image property of BridgetDS)

After splitting the first three seasons between the big club and the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League, Pacioretty honed his craft by combining speed and power and utilizing his powerful wrist shot. Scoring 30 or more goals in the next three of four years, he was named captain of the Canadiens ahead of the 2015-16 season. The extra set of responsibilities didn’t hinder his ability to perform, as he reached the 30-goal plateau two more times as captain.

As the team started to slide, management decided to start building, and those plans didn’t include Pacioretty. He was dealt to the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar, Suzuki, and a second-round pick. He recorded another 30-goal season before injuries began to take their toll on him.

Shea Weber (2018-19 – 2020-21)

In the summer of 2016, the Canadiens sent shockwaves through the league when defenseman P.K. Subban got traded to the Nashville Predators for Shea Weber. The exchange came just two years into his luxurious new deal that paid him $9 million for the next eight seasons. Weber was four years older, and his contract didn’t expire until the 2025-26 season, leaving many to doubt the decision.

Jake Evans, Shea Weber, Victor Mete,
Montreal Canadiens’ Jake Evans celebrates with teammates Shea Weber and Victor Mete (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

Weber took over the captaincy from Pacioretty in the 2018-19 season following his trade to the Golden Knights. The veteran presence he provided on the blue line made it an easy choice for management and one they wouldn’t regret. The Canadiens failed to make the playoffs in his first year as the true leader, but that would change in the next two years, as the Habs would not only qualify for the playoffs but make a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2021.

Related: 5 Notable Ex-Canadiens To Root For in the 2023 Playoffs

Sadly, Weber’s age and injuries eventually caught up to him and had taken its toll on his body. It was evident during each passing series in 2021, as the man mountain showcased visible signs of distress during certain moments in each series. Montreal sent him to Vegas in the summer of 2022 to shed his contract from their books, acquiring forward Evgenii Dadonov in return. The 37-year-old currently sits on the Arizona Coyotes’ long-term injury reserve list.

How does Suzuki compare to the five names on this list? Failing to make the playoffs should place him behind Damphousse and Gionta, who accomplished this feat despite losing in the first round. He statistically outperformed Pacioretty, and led his team in points, unlike Weber and Koivu. When considering single-season success, Suzuki had a better first year as captain than all three but has plenty to prove as the youngest to guide the Blue Blanc Rouge in the years to come.

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