ROCKET SPORTS MEDIA — Last summer, Marc Bergevin was faced with dealing with a disastrous 71-point season, where his assembled roster finished 28th place in the league. There was also the matter of a strained relationship between the Canadiens general manager and team captain Max Pacioretty.
The usual suspects in the mainstream media began a death watch predicting a trade and speculating on the return. From my perspective, the divorce led to a positive outcome for both sides. Pacioretty moved to contender, had a solid season and proved that he can produce in the playoffs.
For the Canadiens, the return was much better than many expected would occur. A motivated Tomas Tatar provided quality two-way play in the top six while reaching a career high in points. A 2019 second-round pick (via Columbus) was a good addition, but the centerpiece of the trade was centerman Nick Suzuki, the 13th overall pick in 2017.
Is Suzuki ready for the NHL?
Last season, he wasn’t ready. After a solid training camp in Montreal, Suzuki was returned to the OHL Owen Sound Attack with a goal to play the game with more pace, a style the Canadiens employed this past season.
Suzuki demonstrated a positive attitude and took the instructions to heart as he played a more dominant two-way game while still producing at a 1.5 point per game pace in the OHL.
While at the 2019 World Junior Championships, despite only having three points in five games, Suzuki became an important player for Team Canada. Upon his return from the WJC, he was traded to Guelph.
Since that trade, he took off offensively with 49 points in 29 regular season games. He also was awarded the William Hanley Trophy as the OHL’s Most Sportsmanlike Player of the Year, for the third season in a row.
Guelph has had an epic run to the OHL finals. After a four-game sweep over Kitchener in the first round, Guelph fell to 0-3 in their second round matchup with London. At this point Suzuki picked his team up and led them to a stunning comeback to win the series in seven games. In four elimination games, Suzuki scored 11 points while shutting down London’s top line.
In the OHL Western Conference final, Guelph fell to 1-3 behind Saginaw before winning three in a row to take the series. In those three elimination games, Suzuki scored six points, including scoring the series winning goal. Making it 17 points in seven elimination games this season and a total of 31 points in 18 playoff games to lead the CHL for points in the playoffs after three rounds.
Fans are pointing to this offensive success in the playoffs as evidence he is NHL ready. While this proves he is an excellent prospect, it is an enormous jump from the OHL to the best hockey league in the world. Expectations particularly through a narrow perspective should be tempered with respect to the 19-year-old forward.
Suzuki has played this season mostly at center and has excelled. But is he capable of earning a top-nine role on the Canadiens as a center for this coming season?
He has his work cut out for him as he would need to displace Claude Julien’s most trusted shutdown player in Phillip Danault, or the first 70-plus point center the Canadiens have had since 2010 in Max Domi, or the team’s future top centerman in Jesperi Kotkaniemi. It is highly unlikely he could steal away a roster spot there.
Technically, Suzuki will also be in competition with Ryan Poehling for a roster spot. However, a physical game is absent from Suzuki’s repetoire which makes him an unlikely candidate for a bottom-six role down the middle.
As a right-handed shooter, Suzuki could be moved to the wing, adding something that was missing on the Habs power-play. So could he take a top-nine role on the right wing?
It is safe to say Brendan Gallagher’s spot is safe after his second straight 30-plus goal campaign. The lineup becomes interchangeable among wingers at that point as Tatar, Arturri Lehkonen, Paul Byron, even Andrew Shaw can play either wing and have proven they can produce points while playing a responsible defensive. That leaves Joel Armia who has the ability to play a puck possession style and a physical cycle game.
However there are still a number of questions to answer regarding Suzuki’s jump to the NHL. While it can be projected that Suzuki has high offensive potential, can he have the same success against bigger, stronger opponents particularly when strength is an issue for him? Currently his physical game is non existent and his forecheck is weak. And then comes the issue of Suzuki’s defensive game.
Bergevin and Julien have said that they will let the youth play if they can prove they belong. Kotkaniemi has proven that the Habs young prospects can be able to make the NHL immediately.
That being said, barring an incredible camp, Suzuki’s name is not likely to be on the NHL roster on opening day as he is unlikely to displace the current top nine centers or right wingers. The more reasonable expectation is that Suzuki will play as a top-six forward in Laval next season in all offensive situations.
With the shortage of offence Laval suffered last season, there is no doubt Suzuki would be given every opportunity to grow his offensive game without additional pressure. He could develop into the scoring forward that the Canadiens expect him to be at the NHL level.
By Blain Potvin, Staff Writer.
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