This has been a rollercoaster of a season for Montreal Canadiens fans. One part joyful and two parts painful. But the beautiful thing about hockey is that losing doesn’t necessarily mean a team is bad. The nature of hockey puts a lot of a team’s fate in the hands of the hockey gods, or luck if you prefer.
So, even at times when the Canadiens’ season looks all but dead, we can find some really good performances amongst the rubble of failure. For me, the biggest bright spot for the Canadiens is young Nick Suzuki.
Nick Suzuki is a Revelation
If you follow me on Twitter, you know I may go a little bit overboard in my love for Suzuki’s game. But, I’ve been watching this team since Guy Lafleur and Bob Gainey were taking to the ice, and I haven’t had this feeling about a rookie in a long time.
It’s not without irony that he arrives on this roster from another organization, because he has that je ne sais quoi that has evaded the Canadiens’ amateur scouting for a very long time; a scouting staff that seems to have prioritized physical ability like speed and the right attitude found in players like Brendan Gallagher. I’m not saying this is a bad strategy, only that it’s a noticeable focus that results in a certain type of player.
Suzuki is not of that mold. His style is subtle. He doesn’t have blazing speed or take a ridiculous amount of punishment in front of the net to claw and scrape for scoring chances. You have to pay close attention to see that he rarely puts himself out of position, he doesn’t overextend himself in desperation to recover a loose puck, he doesn’t compromise his control and balance while making dekes and working the corners, and he’s not being wiped-out during puck battles because he’s elusive and clever.
His vision is limitless. His fake passes and ability to put the puck on his linemates’ sticks at exactly the right moment is something the Canadiens haven’t seen since the 2007-08 season when Alex Kovalev scored 84 points. He is calm under pressure, a lot like Canadiens’ superstar goaltender Carey Price. His IQ is off the charts.
Suzuki’s Already a Difference Maker
Of course, you want some statistical proof. Below is a chart that plots all NHL forwards on defensive (defined by On-Ice 5v5 Expected Goals Against) and offensive ability (defined as all situation points per 60 mins). You can see that Suzuki is nicely situated in the Difference Maker quadrant, with similar performance to Matt Duchene and Clayton Keller. Of all the Canadiens’ forwards, only Nick Cousins has a better 5v5 Expected Goals Against rate than Suzuki, but Suzuki provides superior offensive punch.
Suzuki’s defensive awareness is at the root of the trust bestowed on him by head coach Claude Julien. It’s the reason the rookie’s confidence was able to flourish and his offensive game to grow.
His numbers are good, but when we add some context, his story is even more impressive. This is his rookie season. He made the jump from junior right to the NHL without a stop in the minors. He hasn’t been scratched once. He’s avoided a slump or a drop in confidence. He hasn’t been taking bad, “rookie”, penalties. He’s barely played half a season but carries himself on the ice like a five-year veteran. And these nice statistics were accumulated mostly with bottom-six linemates and inconsistent power play time, often being pushed aside in favour of veterans. A closer look at his underlying statistics using Waveintel’s VERSUS PLAYER analytical tool helps uncover some interesting details.
Suzuki’s Untapped Potential
For the purpose of this exercise, I’m using Duchene as a comparable. (for more information on how to interpret all the details on the VERSUS PLAYER report, visit waveintel.org.)
Although both players have similar individual statistics, Duchene has 31 points and Suzuki has 27 points, the Canadiens’ rookie has far less advantageous deployment. Duchene has exactly one more minute of power play time per game, and is deployed exclusively in the offensive zone, whereas Suzuki has a more even distribution of zone starts. Both players are very good on the power play, but Suzuki has better scoring rates and he outscores his Individual Expected Goal rates, which may hint to a special player with the ability to score without needing an obviously good scoring chance, or it could just be good luck considering the small sample size. My eye test sides with him being a special player over being lucky, as you might have guessed.
Is Suzuki going to become that elusive number-one centre missing from the Canadien’s lineup for what seems like forever? Maybe not, but it’s those qualities — the IQ, elusiveness, calmness — that make him an intriguing prospect; one that may eventually fulfill the dreams of Canadiens’ fans.