Montreal Canadiens: Nick Suzuki Has Enormous Opportunity to Cement Role vs Penguins

BUFFALO, NY - JANUARY 30: Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Nicholas T. LoVerde/Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NY - JANUARY 30: Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Nicholas T. LoVerde/Getty Images) /

The Montreal Canadiens will take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in a play-in series. A handful of players have a huge opportunity to cement future role.

The Montreal Canadiens can trace their lineage to Nick Suzuki all the way back to a decision the team made seven years before Suzuki was even born. If not for one decision at the draft table way back in 1992, the past three decades of the Canadiens history would be much different.

Now, you can argue if the Habs had to wipe out any three decades of their history, the past three might be the ones to go, but I digress.

Back in 1992 at the NHL Draft, the Montreal Canadiens were set to announce the 68th overall pick in the third round. They could have gone with high scoring winger Martin Gendron who was absolutely lighting up the QMJHL with 71 goals and 137 points in 68 games. He was from Valleyfield which is just outside the city of Montreal, but he would fall to the Washington Capitals three picks later and go on to have a short NHL career.

More from Editorials

Instead of going with the local boy who was by far the best goal scorer in the QMJHL, the Canadiens made the wise decision to select Craig Rivet instead. The hulking, low scoring defenceman would go on to play close to 1000 games in the NHL, and was a mainstay on the Habs blue line for over a decade.

The Canadiens made another difficult decision when it was time to part with Rivet. They had three defenders who were all scheduled to be free agents at the same time in Rivet, Andrei Markov and Sheldon Souray. They were also in a playoff race in the 2006-07 season but couldn’t afford to watch all three blue liners leave for nothing in the offseason.

So, they traded Rivet to the San Jose Sharks for a first round pick and Josh Gorges. While Gorges logged some heavy, tough minutes for the Habs for years, the first round pick turned into Max Pacioretty. The American left winger would become one of the best goal scorers in hockey for about half a decade with the Habs, before the team had to make yet another difficult decision to move on from the player who was not just their most dangerous offensive threat, but also became their captain.

This time, Pacioretty was moved in a similar type of trade that saw Rivet leave town. Pacioretty went to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for Nick Suzuki, Tomas Tatar and a second round pick. Tatar has been great for the Canadiens since arriving two year ago, and that second round pick turned into Mattias Norlinder who is a fine looking prospect.

But it is Suzuki who has the chance to have the biggest impact on the Canadiens franchise. He was a first round pick of the Golden Knights in 2017 because he scored 45 goals and 96 points as a 17 year old in the Ontario Hockey League.

He had another great year as an 18 year old, but was at his best during the playoffs in the 2018-19 season. Suzuki was moved to the Guelph Storm and would score 42 points in 24 games, leading them to an OHL championship. Suzuki didn’t slow down at the Memorial Cup where he scored seven points in four games, but the Storm lost in the semifinals.

From there it was off to Habs camp last fall and Suzuki was up to the challenge. He played well enough in exhibition games to earn a spot in the opening night lineup. He was off to a bit of a slow start, playing a fourth line right winger role to begin his career. He had just six points in his first 17 games, but showed he was capable of playing at the NHL level.

As he earned the trust of his coach, Suzuki earned more ice time and a bigger role, including some power play time. He took full advantage and would score 35 points in the Habs final 54 games. That is a 52 point pace over a full season which is impressive stuff from a 20 year old who was expected to be playing a top six role with the Laval Rocket this season.

His development has given him the opportunity to take on a top six role with the Montreal Canadiens. With Max Domi unsure of whether he will return to play this summer, Suzuki has the opportunity to play second line centre for the Habs.

When training camp opened on Monday, Suzuki was situated between Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia. The top line of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher has been unchanged most of the season and has been extremely effective. This makes the Suzuki line the Habs second most dangerous, and will put them in a very important role.

When the Canadiens face-off against the Penguins in August, Danault’s line will certainly get the matchup with Sidney Crosby. That will leave the difficult task of shutting down Evgeni Malkin to the Suzuki line.

Matching up physically with Malkin is difficult for any player in the league and the 5’11” Suzuki isn’t going to grind Malkin into submission. However, he plays an extremely intelligent two-way game and could be able to knock Malkin off his game by shutting him down defensively. The Pens star is known to get a little frustrated when things aren’t going his way and if Suzuki can be in the right place defensively, which he pretty much always is, it could lead to Malkin taking a few extra penalties instead of filling the net like he is capable of as well.

The Canadiens depth chart down the middle of the ice is a bit of a mystery going forward. Danault will be in there somewhere, but is he really a first line centre? Domi has played mostly at centre but is that the best spot for him or is he better on the wing? Jesperi Kotkaniemi was drafted to be a centre, but how high up the depth chart is he ready to climb? Ryan Poehling could factor in somewhere in the near future but he is likely to be on one of the bottom two lines.

Next. Julien Likes What He Sees From Kotkaniemi. dark

Suzuki worked his way up the depth chart on right wing before being moved to centre. He has shown to be capable at every position he has been put in his entire hockey life. If he can pass this final test during his rookie campaign, he will cement himself as one of the team’s top six centres going forward.