Under the Microscope – Nick Suzuki

When looking at the success or failure of a team, the performance of the team leaders is always scrutinized. In Montreal the situation with the Canadiens has been a little different from the norm because they have been in the midst of a complete makeover. It is a young team with a young leadership group and expectations have been kept to a minimum. That is fair.

But if the Canadiens want to escape 30 years of mediocrity some realities need to be addressed.

Enter Nick Suzuki, the captain of the team and the choice by management to build the team around. Over the past 3 seasons, Suzuki has impressively averaged the 4th highest 5v5 ice time among NHL centers and racked up the 35th most points among that group in the same period of time. In points per 60 among centers with more than 180 games played since 2020-21, however, Suzuki ranks 63rd. On the power play, he ranked 46th.

I know I am treading on sacred ground with some fans but it has always been my contention that Suzuki would a fine #2 center. From a points scored per 60 perspective, he would have ranked near the bottom of that group over the past 3 years.

Eleven games into the season the Montreal captain has yet to register a 5v5 assist. The points will come, but he has put himself behind the eight ball with respect to even strength scoring so far this year.

Among that same cohort he ranked 79th in face-off winning percentage. That has improved so far this year and I hope that improvement holds. It would make the rest of his job easier

Suzuki certainly brings other attributes to the table. He is obviously a leader and has embraced Montreal. It is hard to measure what that means to a team but it certainly important. But 1st line players are counted on to carry the burden offensively.

Yes, their are extenuating circumstances. He is one of the younger players in the league and hasn’t had a good right winger other than a brief stint with Kirby Dach. In fact, the entire team is young and still finding its feet. Suzuki has been given credit as a smart player, doing the best with what he has to work with. I can’t argue with that. But smarts alone don’t launch you into elite category and there are limitations to his game.

When Kirby Dach went down with injury the Canadiens lost their most skilled center. His size and reach gave him a big advantage. Dach was the best on the team at gaining the offensive zone. He also excelled at holding onto the puck while looking to make a creative play. Before his injury dropped him, I believe he was on the cusp of becoming a legitimate 1st line center allowing Suzuki to move into a role that really suits him. Now we have to wait until next season to see if that is the case.

In the meantime, I am keeping my expectations for Suzuki at a modest level. If he can score somewhere around 65 points we should be pleased. It wouldn’t be enough to get the Canadiens into the playoffs but it would be a solid contribution by the team captain.

First Line Vacancy – RW

Through the first 5 games of the season, the Montreal Canadiens have a more than respectable record of 3-1-1 and fans should be more than pleased with that result. But the result comes with a disclaimer. The first line of the Canadiens seems out of sync.

A glance through social media posts makes it clear that one topic is verboten and that is any critical analysis of Nick Suzuki’s play. But on a team that has dominated the opposition when it comes to 5v5 scoring, Suzuki is a -3. Yes, it is a poor statistic but it is still somewhat telling. Suzuki has one even strength point this season at it has come in OT in a 3v3 situation, so something isn’t working.

The problem lies, in my opinion, that Suzuki is only working with 2/3 of a line at the moment. He and Cole Caufield have always had amazing chemistry but finding that final piece to the puzzle isn’t something that the GM or coaching staff have been able to do… yet.

In the off-season, many were on the Rafael Harvey-Pinard bandwagon, a good player in his own right but not necessarily a fit with the way the Suzuki and Caufield play the game. His scoring stats last year dazzled but few paid close attention to his unsustainable shooting percentage that allowed him to reach those heights. What everyone should have been watching is whether RHP’s skillset was complement to the Suzuki and Caufield line. It isn’t. He has a place on the team but playing on Suzuki’s flank is not it.

Brendan Gallagher’s name has come up and it may come up even more with his quick start to the season. But Gallagher seems to have been thriving on the 11 minutes a game that has been allocated to him. Asking him to keep pace with Suzuki and Caufield for 18+ minutes per game is asking too much. Keeping him fresh has paid dividends, besides which, he seems to have developed a bit of chemistry with Tanner Pearson and Sean Monahan.

That also takes Monahan out of the equation for an even strength RW on the first line. Keep him on the 3rd line while also giving him PP and PK responsibilities.

Josh Anderson is another who has been tried as Suzuki’s RW with limited success. His bull in the china shop, shoot first mentality hasn’t added value to the first line. With Alex Newhook and Juraj Slafkovsky as linemates, we are beginning to see some chemistry develop. There’s a fit there but it’s not perfect and Newhook has been the weakest on the team when it comes to faceoffs. The potential to grow into a better line is there.

That leaves Jesse Ylonen, (currently playing on the 4th line with Jake Evans and Michael Pezzetta) along with Joel Armia as candidates to try on the first line. Neither one is likely to be the answer. Ylonen seems to have settled into a role as a defensively responsible 4th line player who can kill penalties and contribute on offense occasionally. I don’t want to dismiss the idea of Armia entirely but he seems to be a better candidate for a trade than a promotion.

So the vacancy remains.

The situation will be further complicated when Christian Dvorak returns in the next 10-14 days. That would leave the Habs with 5 centers. Does coach Martin St. Louis toy with the idea of pulling Monahan out of his successful role between Gallagher and Pearson freeing him up to play with Suzuki and Caufield, with Dvorak slotting in as 3rd line center? It’s certainly an option.

So is moving Newhook to RW on the 1st line with Monahan moving between Slafkovsky and Anderson. Or does Slafkovsky move to RW on the first line with Monahan and Newhook playing together on the 2nd line with Anderson? In my mind, Slafkovsky brings a more complementary skillset to the 1st line. Newhook could benefit from playing with Monahan, with a veteran taking more of the critical face-offs and Newhook getting his fair share, too.

Waiting in the wings is Joshua Roy and because he knocking on the door, it feels like the Canadiens are in no rush to find a long term solution to the vacancy on RW. General Manager Kent Hughes may feel that he already has a long term solution in Roy and simply needs a short term one as bridge to Roy’s eventual arrival.

If none of these options are palatable, it brings us to potential trades as a possible solution to the finding a fit at RW on the first line. What would that player ideally look like? Here are some attributes that the Canadiens could be looking for.

  • A physical player and a strong forechecker to dig the puck out for his teammates
  • A reliable defensive player who can come back hard and who excels at getting the puck out of the d-zone
  • A somewhat creative player who can use his offensively gifted linemates to create scoring chances
  • A player with an expiring contract on whom a long term decision can be made later in the year.
  • And finally, a player who costs little in the way assets in a trade.

Is that player a unicorn? A scroll through Cap Friendly tells us that he probably is

Whatever the outcome, unless the Suzuki line begins to click and create some scoring chances, Kent Hughes will be looking at ways to help his dynamic duo.